Animal Medicine

Cody gets up early, 5:30 a.m. or so, eats his breakfast and waits by the door for his mom. When they arrive at Scarborough Terrace, he snoozes until the place starts to hum with activity, then heads off on his rounds.

He  knows which of his elderly friends are not feeling well and will need a little more comfort today.

A Welsh Corgi, Cody looks like a ball of fur as he bolts up the stairs on his short legs, though sometimes he takes the elevator. How does he know which floor to go to? “He doesn’t, and he’s too short to reach the button,” says Terry Huntley, executive director of the assisted-living facility. “He just wants a ride.”

Nearly every weekday for seven years, Huntley and Cody have worked in tandem. She runs the place. He just makes people smile.

“He’s well-mannered and even-tempered, he’s affectionate and loyal,” Huntley says. “He has some people here that he has to see at least three times a day. He has a sixth sense about people and how things are with them.”

There are no electrodes attached to Irving Knowles, Alice Flaherty or other Scarborough Terrace residents to gauge how they feel when Cody comes around. The only evidence of their well-being is their smiles. It’s easy to see that the love given by this low-slung dog with the pointed ears is unconditional. He doesn’t talk (or talk back). He doesn’t judge. He’s a little proud of himself, and well he should be. There’s increasing evidence about the health benefits of pets like him.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pets can reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and feelings of loneliness, while also getting people to exercise, spend time outdoors and be around others.

Dr. Charles Creagan, a cancer doctor at the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, says a pet is “a medication without side effects.” A strong believer in the healing power of pets, he came to that belief in a dramatic way.

Several years ago, Creagan was the attending physician when a man was admitted to the clinic with advanced lung cancer, advanced heart failure and pneumonia. “We did not think he would make it through the night,” Creagan says in a YouTube video. The patient did survive. He told the doctors that the catalyst for wanting to get home was Max.

“Naively we thought that Max was a partner or a son or a daughter, but in fact Max was a 95-pound German shepherd,” Creagan said. “Max was the purpose for which this patient wanted to live. It made me realize the tremendous healing power of pets.”

As a result of that experience, Creagan now puts the names of his patients’ pets in their medical histories, knowing their moods will change completely when they talk about their pets.

“We now know that when you look into the eyes of that cat, when you stroke that dog, when you hold that animal, there’s a surge of hormones deep within the center of the brain,” he says. “These hormones provoke a tremendous feeling of peace, of serenity, of tranquility. They decrease our blood pressure, they decrease our pulse, they lessen our depression.”

Studies funded by the National Institute of Health demonstrate the health benefits that come from owning or interacting with pets. The studies, as reported in the institute’s newsletter, include these findings:

Dog owners who had suffered heart attacks were “significantly more likely” to be alive a year later than heart patients who didn’t have dogs.

Pet owners recovered more quickly from stress when they were with their pets than if they were with a spouse or friend.

People who walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese. Those aged 71 to 82 who walked their dogs regularly walked faster and longer and had greater mobility in their homes than those who didn’t.

And seniors with dementia “may have fewer anxious outbursts if there is a pet in the home,” says Don Hanson, owner of a Bangor kennel and national president of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. “The simple act of caring for a pet can give a person purpose in their life and provide companionship and incentive to exercise.”

Medical facilities are beginning to take notice. Some, including Maine Medical Center, the Central Maine Medical Center and The Cedars, a senior living community in Portland, are incorporating pet visits into their treatment plans. Those pets need to be trained and certified, while others, such as Cody, are pets who are trained by their owners but not necessarily certified.

For many people, the evidence is personal, as it was for Holly Glidden of Westbrook. She had finally talked her husband, Stephen, into getting a dog. Jethro, a chocolate Lab, had been with them for eight months when she received the devastating news that, at the age of 47, she had breast cancer. First came surgery, then the ordeal of chemotherapy.

“Through all of this Jethro was my constant companion,” she recalls. “I remember many times hugging him, crying and whispering in his ear all of my feelings and all those thoughts that I could not say aloud. He would just sit there and look at me with his beautiful, all-knowing eyes.

“When I would lie on the couch because I wasn’t feeling well, he would always come over and sit beside the couch for hours with his head on my belly, just letting me stroke his head. He didn’t care that I had lost my breasts and my hair and looked pretty awful. I was his momma and he loved me.

“It was almost like Jethro took over when my husband could not be there because he knew that I needed someone. I truly believe that he helped me make it through some of the darkest days of my life. He reminded me to laugh even though laughing was difficult. He reminded me to live in the moment, as dogs do, and every day when I came through the door, and he gave me his ‘Oh, my gosh, where have you been? I am so glad to see you’ greeting, he reminded me I am loved.”

Three years later, Glidden says she is doing well and has added a second dog to the family, a challenge because Trumpet, a lab/chow/hound mix, had lived all of his life in a shelter. Now, she says, “Trumpet and Jethro are brothers in every sense of the word.”

Don Hanson says he and his wife, Paula, are healthier and happier for having pets in their lives, even though that might have seemed improbable: both were allergic to dogs and cats. More than 20 years ago, allergy tests showed that Don was “off the scale” in his allergic reaction to cats. “When I told my allergist that we were moving to Maine and that we were buying a pet care facility, he thought I had lost my mind,” Hanson recalls. Now it’s known that children who live with pets are less likely to develop allergies and asthma, “which is contrary to what was the conventional thinking for years,” he says.

Hanson’s parents were not animal lovers, but when his father was in the hospital near the end of his days, Hanson volunteered to bring in one of his therapy dogs. Instead, his father asked to see Tyler, a family cat. “We were fortunate that the hospital allowed us to bring Tyler in to see Dad, because Tyler was not a certified therapy animal,” Hanson says. “Tyler made my dad’s day.” And after his father died, his mother could often be seen with a cat in her lap, or sneaking food to the dog at the dinner table.

Lynne McGhee of the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland says studies are beginning to show the benefits of pets for other groups as well as seniors, including children with autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or reading problems; adults and children suffering from abuse; and returning war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Pet visits bring the same benefits as pet ownership but only over the short term, McGhee says.

And rescue pets can provide the same feelings of well-being as more fortunate animals. “Every day we see and hear stories of joy when one of our animals becomes a member of a family.”

Most research has focused on dogs, and Hanson says cats “are still seen as second-class citizens by many.” But a 10-year study of more than 4,000 people showed that having cats reduced the risk of heart attack by as much as one-third.

For friends and family members who are dealing with a loved one’s dementia and end-of-life issues, Hanson recommends a bestselling book, Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat, by Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician and researcher at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s about a cat in a nursing home who stays with a dying resident until the end.

Cody makes extra visits in those circumstances, and when a resident dies, he lies in the doorway of his friend’s room. “I guess he feels that’s his place,” says Huntley, for whom Cody is a 24/7 companion.

When Huntley goes on vacation, Cody stays with marketing manager Elizabeth Simonds. “I have an 80-pound black Lab, and guess who’s in charge?” She adds, “A lot of people just love Cody. It just warms your heart to have this little fur ball here.”

Donna Halvorsen, who lives in South Portland, has beena reporter for more than 30 years in Maine, Minnesota and New York. She covered courts for the Portland Press Herald in the 1980s and retired in 2007 from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where she spent 17 years covering legal and consumer issues, health care and the Minnesota Legislature.