Animal Comfort

When dogs were brought to Ground Zero in September to comfort rescue workers, the world witnessed the healing power of animals. Silent, accepting and unfailingly cute, four-footed friends provide a welcome distraction from grief, stress, loneliness and pain. Additionally, many studies show animal therapy can benefit humans suffering from a range of conditions.

"Animals are nonjudgmental and easy to trust," says Lynnette Spanola, vice president of development and publications for the Delta Society, a Washington-based group that screens, trains and registers animals so they are ready to serve when needed. "Animals alleviate stress, not just by the act of people petting them, but because they help people to relax by doing funny things."

Do you and your dog want to get involved? Contact the 25-year-old organization for a list of local evaluators ( Dogs with appropriate temperament and behavior become candidates for participation in Animal Assisted Activities, which include cheering the bereaved, or for Animal Assisted Therapy, which is more structured, one-on-one work.

Studies back the beneficial bond between pets and people. Researchers looked at 48 male and female stockbrokers on medication for hypertension. They found that when stressed, those who had a pet experienced half the increase in blood pressure than those who were pet-free. In another study, animals provided substantial emotional support to those recovering from breast-cancer surgery; the primary benefit was attributed to the comfort of touch.

In a survey of more than 6,000 Australian households, researchers found that dog owners visited the doctor 8 percent less often and cat owners 12 percent less often than those without a pet. Pet owners were shown to use less medication for hypertension, high cholesterol, sleeping difficulties, or heart problems.

It's easy to understand why even Florence Nightingale prescribed small-animal companionship for the chronically ill. Man's best friend is both good company and a key player for overall health.

—Viki Psihoyos