By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.

Prior to moving to Hollenbeck Palms Retirement Home, my 85-year-old uncle lived independently in Gardena. I’d meet with him from time to time at Paul’s Kitchen on San Pedro Street. I’d ask, “How are you doing?” Usually, he would tell me about the problems he’s having, e.g., he got into another fender-bender, someone stole his wallet at the gym, or his gardener ruining his yard.

But, he would always light up when he started to talk about his dogs (he had two). He’d say with a smile, “My dogs are always so excited to see me when I come home. I can hear them running back and forth because they don’t know which door I’m going to enter. Sometimes I enter though the side, but if I get the mail I enter through the front. They want to be there to greet me.”

Years later, after moving to Hollenbeck Palms, I’d pick him up and we’d go have lunch at Paul’s Kitchen. I’d ask, “How are you doing?” He’d reply sadly, “I miss my dogs.” After the Gardena Police called stating that the family had better find other living arrangements for my uncle, I thought the retirement home was the right move. Now, however, after reading the research on the healing power of pets, I’m not so sure.

Now, my father was really good with people, he had social skills. Even as a small child, I remember watching people come up to my dad at social gatherings saying, “Hey Shig,” (if they knew him from before the war) or “Hey Doc.” Dad, not being sure of their first name, would always smile and respond, “How you doing Tiger?” If it was a large gathering, there might have been 4 or 5 “Tigers” walking around.

Not my uncle. “Gruff” would be the best adjective to describe his social skills. For example, we’d be shooting craps at the California Hotel in Las Vegas and an elderly Asian woman would come play next to him. She’d look at him and smile. Now, my father-in-law would flirt back. Not my uncle, he would look at her like she was a “kook” and would slide his chips and himself away.

Not surprisingly, my uncle never fit in at the retirement home. Rejection can sting, but it eases when you’re greeted with a wagging tail. Living at home with his dogs, he had two friends to talk to and play with when no one else was around. And science confirms pets help our sense of belonging. One study found that pet owners reported having higher self-esteem, felt more conscientious, and even bounced back faster from social rejection.

Pets can also boost confidence by easing social isolation. “We’re social beings as humans, and when we are experiencing a stressor, we turn to our social relationships,” says Megan K. Mueller, an assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “Animals provide emotional and social comfort that can’t always be replicated by our friends and family.” (Source: Special Time Edition, “The Age of Anxiety,” June 2020)

What’s more, a major reason that it’s so pleasant to have animals around is their lack of judgment. One of the key parts of the healing power of pets (mostly dogs) is that they love us in an unconditional way that human relationships rarely achieve. You could be the “roughest, toughest, meanest ol’ hombre to ever jump a claim,” but your dog will still love you. They’re simply there for us and us for them.

Helen and Ron Matsunaga

“Animals often serve as welcome distractions. A wag of the tail or a glance out the window at a squirrel can help shift attention or conversation away from sickness or pain and elevate the mood, if only temporarily,” says Mary Jo Gilmer, a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University whose studies include animal behavior with ill children.

“Simply touching an animal can relieve stress. The feel-good hormone oxytocin can increase upon stroking the hair of a dog or rubbing an animal. It’s that connection,” says Gilmer. “It’s stroking the fur, the tactile sense and the feeling that a child has — this dog loves me.” Conversely, cortisol, a stress hormone, has been shown to decrease after time spent with animals, and studies suggest that petting dogs can lower our heart rate.

Believe it or not, just petting a dog may be enough to keep that pesky cold away. Gently petting an animal can help to relax and reduce stress levels in both the human and animal. It is believed that an animal’s heart rate slows down and blood pressure drops along with a person’s because of the release of oxytocin. Getting close to a pet is a great way to combat stress. (Source: https://www.caregiversolutions.ca/featured-carousel/the-healing-power-of-pets/)

According to Allen McConnell, a professor of psychology based at Miami University, the healing power of pets is very real – enough to lower your blood pressure. McConnell, who studies the ways humans interact with their pets, says that owning an animal can give people a sense of purpose and belonging those augments feelings of positivity which translates to health benefits. (Source: https://www.happiness.com/magazine/science-psychology/)

Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher from the University of British Columbia, agrees with these findings. “Your blood pressure lowers when you interact with an animal in a friendly way and your muscles relax, too,” he said. Another study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease said that stroking animals – even pet snakes – can help bring blood pressure down.

A University of Pennsylvania study conducted by Erika Friedmann showed that people who suffered from heart disease were more likely to survive for a longer period if they had a pet at home. Following their treatment, people with a pet in their lives to return to had a much greater chance of recovery. In fact, pets were found to be a stronger predictor of survival than even having a supportive family around the individual concerned!

According to the American Heart Association, there is a link between contact with a pet (especially dogs) and a reduced risk for heart disease and greater longevity. The National Institute of Health’s review of heart-related studies on people who have pets showed that pet owners had decreased levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure — all of which may minimize risk of a heart attack in the future.

Pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as it’s also called, has been linked to the reduction of anxiety, pain and depression in people with a range of mental or physical health problems. Those who could benefit from pet therapy include patients undergoing chemotherapy, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and physical therapy patients working on their fine motor skills.

Many people with a pet report that they feel improved mental health for having them in their lives. According to work conducted by Sandy Branson of the University of Texas Science Center, home-bound adults, particularly older people, do get a psychological lift from pet ownership. Her research looked into cognitive function and depression. In it, she found a significant correlation between better mental health and pet ownership among older people.

According to the aforementioned study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, touching a pet not only helps to lower blood pressure, but it also boosts our output of oxytocin, a happiness hormone that promotes feelings of trust and relaxation. More widely, dog owners can expect an upturn in immunoglobulin A, an antibody that helps the immune system.

Finally, according to an article published by Harvard Medical School, mindfulness can be boosted by dog ownership, especially when you go on a walk together. Pets help to keep you anchored in the here and now. Because animals tend not to express feelings of anxiety of what might be or what has passed, they help us to live in the moment, a key aspect of various forms of mindfulness including mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).

In conclusion, the healing power of pets is well documented. From taking away your stress with a loving lick to keeping you on the move by playing and going on walks, companion pets like dogs and cats are wonderful for helping to maintain your physical and mental health. If you don’t own a pet, trained comfort animals might be something that Keiro and Iyashi Care should look into — give them a call.

Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of  The Rafu Shimpo.

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