February 6th, 2009
09:04 AM ET

For the love and health of pets

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

My dog, Nipsey, has ESP. Every day when I get home from work, he can tell what kind of mood I am in. If I'm tired or stressed he cuddles up and licks my face. Come home feelin' good? He's feisty and ready to play. There's not one day my dog doesn't bring me peace of mind. I love seeing my husband when he picks me up from the Metro station, but there's something about my Jack Russell that calms my soul when I walk through the door.

So when I interviewed Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and told him about my pooch, he wasn't surprised. Creagan actually specializes in hospice care and knows the power of a pet. In many cases, he has taken out his prescription pad and written these words: "One dog, one cat, infinite refills." His patients say their pets help them cope with serious illnesses. That's why Creagan uses dogs in many of his therapy sessions.

Studies have shown pets are good for us. They get us out, keep us active and give us responsibility. Pets are part of our family. More people in the neighborhood know Nipsey than me. When I talk to my friends, I always ask about their pets. Ann has Buddy and Cleo; Mary her Lily; Evy loves Chip, and Nancy has two cats named Norman and Maui. They just sort of go hand and paw.

I asked Creagan if a hamster or a snake can have the same kind of effect as a dog or a cat. Creagan believes any pet, if you love that animal, can give you joy. He calls it unconditional love. And that love can keep us healthy.

Researchers at SUNY-Buffalo followed stockbrokers already taking medication for hypertension and noted that those who got a pet reduced by half the increase in their blood pressure numbers brought on my stress. Seems people who have pets have a decrease in a stress hormone called cortisol. So when you pet or play with your pet, the biological change drops your stress level and your blood pressure numbers go down.

And as we get older, pets can help us cope with illnesses. Scientists have found that older patients who have pets are less likely to be depressed and are more heart healthy. Recent studies showed those who were hospitalized with heart failure had better cardiac function when a dog visited them in the hospital. Anxiety levels dropped more if a pet was present than if a human volunteer came to visit.

And don't forget exercise. My friend Jen owns a 130-pound Boxer-Rottweiler-Great Dane-German Shepherd mix named Roscoe. She got him as a guard dog from a local shelter, but let's face it, Roscoe is her lovable treadmill. She is always active, cause Roscoe has to be walked.

As for Nipsey, I can't think of a day without him. I am blessed to have a wonderful family and people who love me, but there are days that only my dog knows what I am going through. His devotion is priceless.

What do you think? Do you have a pet? How do they help you cope? We'd like to hear about your animal.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.