The black and white papillon snuggled his freckled nose against Evelyn Schmidt’s leg. Her hand patted him gently while she talked. Precious Pauley is her constant companion since her husband, Edward, died.
“He lays on my feet with his head,” Schmidt, 94, said. “If I doze off and wake up he’s still staring at me. I wouldn’t be doing as well as I’m doing now without him.”
Pauley looked up with his big eyes, like he knew Schmidt was praising him for his good medicine – the kind that comes in a fluffy ball of love instead of a capsule of drugs.
The benefits of animal companionship have been obvious to animal lovers for thousands of years – in fact an elderly human from 10,000 BC was found buried in northern Israel cuddling a puppy, the first find suggesting a close relationship between humans and dogs.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, Americans own about 78.2 million dogs and 86.4 million cats.
But now science – hard science, not just social science – is proving the connection.
Researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis recently concluded that older dog owners have significantly lower systolic blood pressure than non-dog owners. And it’s not because people with dogs get more exercise.
That means owning a dog may be a lifestyle factor that actually lowers the risk for cardiovascular disease. After publishing these findings, the team wants to investigate the why – the actual biomarkers – of how dog ownership improves cardiovascular health in people 60 and older. Potential reasons are lower levels of stress, anxiety and loneliness.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in America. By 2030, about 40.5 percent of the population is projected to have some form of the disease, according to the study.
The American Heart Association website states that owning pets is associated with reducing risks of heart disease but the reasons haven’t been specifically pinpointed.
“Owning a dog may be providing companionship or a sense of purpose for older Americans,” said Eric Cerino, a doctoral student who worked on the research with a professor and five other students from varying disciplines, from human development and nutrition to biochemistry and public health. It’s part of the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training at OSU’s Center for Healthy Aging Research and is partially funded by the National Science Foundation.
In November, the group traveled to Florida to present their findings at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America. Cerino said the feedback was tremendous and they got encouragement to pin down the “true mechanics” of why dog ownership actually improves cardiovascular health.
“Animal assisted therapy is really taking off as of late and we wanted to add to the literature,” said Cerino, who mentioned his own bichon named Fettuccini has helped his mental health through these tough graduate school years. The same goes for the other doctoral students on the project that have dogs, cats and even an African grey parrot named Side Kick.
Team member Melissa Conley, a doctoral student in nutrition and the only Washington native of the group – she’s from Marysville – owns a cat named Al.
Crystal Lorenzen, a gerontologist and marketing director of Moran Vista Senior Living on Spokane’s South Hill, wasn’t aware of the specific OSU study but she fully encouraged the community to go 100 percent pet-friendly several years ago.
That’s one of the reasons Schmidt and her husband, along with their miniature poodle Zeus, moved there in 2010. The community even has an established dog park on a small plot of land south of the parking lot that’s fenced and includes benches for the humans and watering stations for the pups.
“We started accepting pets because they are basically part of the family,” Lorenzen said while watching Schmidt pet Pauley. “We put in the dog park because we wanted to be even more pet-friendly.”
About 17 other dogs and cats live with the 131 residents of Moran Vista.
At least once a month, a Labrador named Clark visits the residents in Memory Care for pet therapy. Lorenzen said the residents immediately seem calmer and more relaxed as they pet the dog and talk with him.
Schmidt perked at the idea.
“I’d like to do that,” she said, offering to bring Pauley for visits.
Done. Lorenzen agreed that it’s a great volunteer opportunity for Schmidt and Pauley. Schmidt smiled, pleased. Then she brought it up several other times during the afternoon conversation.
Cerino, whose doctoral focus is cognition in older adults, primarily with Alzheimer’s and dementia, was thrilled to hear of such animal therapy programs in Spokane.
“I can’t tell you how important taking a dog into a memory care unit is,” he said. “With the smiles and the laughs, it’s really increasing well-being.”
Schmidt shrugged at the information about studies and pet ownership. She knows Pauley makes her life better. The area native has family nearby – kids, grandkids and great grandkids – but they are busy and visit only occasionally. Pauley, who her son found at the shelter after Zeus the poodle died, is always there.
“My family can’t be with me all the time so he’s my buffer,” Schmidt said.
Pauley licked his lips and rested his head on Schmidt’s leg. A job well done.
Erica Curless wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by The SCAN Foundation.
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