Experts, patients say therapy pets have healing effect

OCEANSIDE, Calif. - Being around a dog can make people feel better. But therapy dogs that visit people in the hospital are not just helping patients feel better, they are helping patients get better.

One Oceanside woman said she was on the brink of death when a therapy dog named Dudley helped her get out of the woods.

Dudley is a Shetland sheepdog with a sweet disposition, but he is not just all fur, floppy ears and wet nose. He may not be a doctor or nurse, but he is helping patients get better.

"I ended up in the emergency room because I couldn't breathe," said K.J. Foster.

A year ago, Foster was told she only had a couple of months to live, diagnosed with congestive heart failure and in need of a new heart.

"This is what I carry around," said Foster, pointing to a fanny pack that holds batteries and the controller to an LVAD pump, implanted to keep her heart going. 

Foster's doctors and nurses saved her life, but Dudley helped her heart.

"Oh my gosh, at first I thought he was the most beautiful dog. There's an unconditional love that animals give that just really warms your heart," Foster said. "I think that whenever you feel good, it's just one more inch toward getting better."

Dudley's visits helped Foster through a tough five-week recovery. He is one of more than 50 Scripps Health therapy pets.

Dudley's owner, Bill Mueller, said he was inspired after another therapy dog, Buddy Bear, visited his late wife five years ago after she suffered a stroke.

"It meant a great deal to me because I realized how much it made her feel good to have the dog," said Mueller. "Dudley is a sweetheart and maybe he could make somebody else feel a little better."

Therapy dogs come in different shapes and sizes. Princess Buttercup, for example, is a gentle golden retriever, larger than Dudley. They, like the other therapy pets, share the right temperament and training.

According to researchers, it is unclear why therapy dogs help patients -- whether it is the emotional psychological effect, simple physical contact or a combination of all three.  What they do know is that the effects are real.

Studies show just minutes with a dog or cat and our stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate go down. Meanwhile, serotonin, a chemical associated with well-being, goes up.

"If I could put a dog in every room I would," said Dr. Thomas Heywood, Foster's cardiologist. "There are things besides medicine, besides pills and shots and machines that we can use to make people feel better."

Foster said she is living proof and she credited Dudley with helping her thrive.

"Oh, he's going to be my buddy for life now," she said.

Therapy pets tend to be dogs, but cats can have the same effect.