Your Four-Legged Healer

All of the four-leggeds who live in this house have had their time as "senior clinical associates." Golden is the ambassador of love in the front yard most of the year, when the weather allows him to meet and greet all who pass by. The five felines who live on the second floor have all contributed their special breed of medicine in the bathroom and in the kitchen and hallways.

An article in the April 20, 2009 Boston Globe, however, provided them with more impressive credentials: hugging your cat can improve your health and even increase your longevity! "A growing body of medical research suggests that people who own or interact regularly with animals may be healthier than people who don't." And specifically, "Cat owners are less likely to die of a heart attack than non-cat owners….Pet interaction may help protect against allergies, asthma, and even some kinds of cancer."

While, on the one hand, there have been studies that have shown that elderly people who have pets live longer and are happier than those who don't, because pets are so common and familiar, there are many ways we overlook them and take them for granted. No more! The National Institute for Health has recently formed a public/private partnership with MARS (the world's largest maker of pet food), to fund and encourage research on the timeless bond. 

James Griffin, deputy branch chief at NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, stated that, "while there are many small studies and much anecdotal evidence of improved health among cancer patients, autistic children, and others after interacting with animals,….large-scale, controlled studies are needed to determine" the role animals play in human health, and how that healing power may best be tapped.

Adnan Qureshi, a neurologist and executive director of the Minnesota Stroke Initiative at the University of Minnesota, discovered that cat owners were 40% less likely to die from heart attacks than non-cat owners. They were also less likely to die from all cardiovascular diseases — including strokes. The findings held true, he said, “even when the researchers took into account other heart disease risk factors, such as age, weight, gender, race and ethnicity, smoking and cholesterol levels."

These findings do not surprise me at all. I have long considered a cat's purring their "love song." Holding and petting a purring cat is soothing for both cat and human. It also generates oxytocin, the anti-stress hormone that counteracts the effects of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol contributes to cardiac illness. Oxytocin contributes to cardiac health and reverses the effects of cortisol. Science aside, I always feel more joyful, receptive and open when I am holding and petting a purring cat! It just plain feels good!

Cats are also very emotionally tuned in. I have countless stories of times cats responded to emotional and physical distress in their human companions. When I am sad, my cats will curl up next to me, offering comfort and connection. They just know when I need them, and make their presence known!

While some people fret about pet dander and pet hair, several studies have shown that pet ownership is actually good for our immune system. A recent study in San Francisco found that people who reported ever having owned a pet had about a 30 percent lower risk of developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the body's blood-filtering tissues, compared with non-pet owners. The longer they owned the pet, the more protection they appeared to have. 

Earlier studies have linked pet ownership during infancy with a reduced risk of asthma and allergies, because exposure to pet dander is believed to desensitize the body toward later contact. The California researchers theorize a similar chain of events with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Whether biologically or emotionally, it just plain makes sense that beings whose primary purpose is connection, companionship and love would contribute to our well-being and improve the quality of our lives! So, pull out the vacuum, let your four-legged into your bedroom, and enjoy their company on your bed!

Linda Marks, MSM, has practiced heart-centered body psychotherapy (EKP) for nearly 25 years with individuals, couples, families and groups.  Linda and her 13-year-old son Alex share their home with six four-legged healers: one dog and five cats. She writes a monthly e-newsletter HealingHeartPower from which this article was excerpted.  For more information or to contact Linda,,, (617)-965-7846.