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Stress Less / Maud Purcell

Published 4:23 pm, Thursday, January 9, 2014
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The Andersons recently paid me a visit. With tears running down his cheeks, Riley Anderson told me that their dog, Bertie, has contracted what is probably a terminal illness.

The couple never had children, so Bertie has been especially important to them.

Sheepishly, they told me they had just spent $5,000 on treatment for Bertie, even though odds are it won't save her life.

I assured the Andersons that pets are very important family members and that they were neither crazy nor frivolous for doing all they could to save her life.

Since time immemorial, dogs have been considered man's best friend. In the words of beloved author James Thurber, "If I have any beliefs about immortality it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven and very, very few persons."

Today there seems to be a plethora of pets who've been abandoned, mistreated or just plain lost.

The Internet easily connects us with shelters, pet rescues and pet breeders, making it easier than ever to acquire a dog, cat or other household pet. If at the start of the new year you're feeling lonely, directionless or in need of something to love, acquiring a pet might be just what the doctor ordered.

Increasing research points to the many health benefits -- both emotional and physiological -- that owning a pet engenders. Having a household pet can do the following:

Lower blood pressure and cholesterol and lessen the risk of heart attack.

Decrease visits to the doctor by as much as 30 percent.

Significantly reduce stress and anxiety by lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Increase levels of the "feel good" brain chemical dopamine.

Encourage the production of Immunoglobulin A, an anti-body which bolsters immune function.

In the case of dogs, ensure that the owner gets exercise.

Provide owners with a sense of purpose and ameliorate loneliness.

Especially with pets anthropomorphized by their owners, pets provide a perceived sense of "human" connection.

Love us unconditionally, are incredibly loyal and don't judge or criticize us.

Most interestingly, recent studies are showing that dogs may be able to help detect certain types of cancers in their owners by smelling their breath.

In addition to all of these potential benefits, an increasing number of returning veterans and victims of other extreme trauma are benefitting from the comfort and protection of trained "dogs in service."

Before you tell your family members or loved ones that "Maud suggested you get a pet," let them know I also shared this cautionary note -- all pets, especially young ones, require time, effort and patience.

If you're short on any of these, please ignore everything I've just said. As loving and healing as pets can be, they bring with them their own kind of stress.

Be sure you've carefully thought through how you'd integrate a pet into your day-to-day existence, given your stage and style of life.

If just the thought of a new furry friend causes your heart to race, brings on a headache or triggers a grouchy mood, please remember that there are many other ways to fill your time, improve your health, and give purpose to your life in 2014.

Maud Purcell is a psychotherapist, corporate consultant and director of the Life Solution Center of Darien. Write her at mpurcell@thelifesolutioncenter.net.