PET RX: Owning a pet can be a prescription for good health
Mike Campbell is a shining star in the Lowcountry’s wellness community, but few would have thought that in the winter of 2009, he weighed more than 360 pounds, had an array of health problems and took seven prescription medications.
Protecting your pet from injury
According to veterinarian Artise Stewart of Charleston Veterinary Referral Center, most dogs would rather be spending time with owners than receiving food. She encourages owners to take their pets to the park, to throw the ball outside, or go for a jog.
But just like humans, pets can suffer from exercise-related injuries and owners should take steps to protect them.
Stretch your pet
This includes long walks, runs, agility tournaments, or other competitions/sporting events. Stretching helps prevent injury, increases joint flexibility, improves muscle and soft tissue extensibility, and helps improve the pet’s overall performance. If you notice a sore or sensitive spot while stretching your pet, contact your veterinarian immediately as this may be the first sign of an injury.
Work on conditioning
Conditioning helps increase strength, flexibility and endurance in pets. Pulling weights, swimming, trotting for long distances, or walking on a treadmill, underwater treadmill or in the sand are all great ways to increase your pet’s endurance.
Start slowly when trying to increase endurance, as working too hard too fast may cause injury. Try increasing your pet’s exercise time by two minutes each week, and keep an eye out for any signs of fatigue such as excessive panting or muscle trembling.
Watch for limping
When an animal limps, it means they are in pain and need to be seen by a vet immediately. Do not give any over-the-counter medications to your pet as they have different effects on pets than in people.
Keep weight in check
Overweight and obese animals are more prone to injury as the excessive weight places more stress on their joints and muscles. Help your pet maintain a healthy weight by engaging them in fun and entertaining activities such as swimming, hiking and spending time at the beach.
Source: Artise Stewart, Charleston Veterinary Referral Center
Today, Campbell – who documented his weight loss journey on an online journal called “Fat Guy Diary” – serves as chairman of Eat Smart Move More Tri-County and the Charleston Marathon’s Kids Marathon, along with an array of other volunteer wellness initiatives.
Campbell, now 57, points to a seemingly unusual source of motivation for part of his initial efforts to shed and keep off 130 pounds: his rescue dogs.
“In the early days, when I weighed 360, I was focused more on my diet but was looking for little things to start to move more. One of the things I did because we (he and wife Polly) had the two dachshunds at the time was just walking them around the block,” says Campbell, who has since rescued two Chihuahuas.
“At the time, I hadn’t been active at all, so that little step was huge for me,” says Campbell.
Admitting that he is a “stress eater” and addicted to certain foods, Campbell adds that the benefits of owning dogs goes well beyond exercising.
“Having the company of the dogs helps me deal with the stress better,” says Campbell, tearing up as he noted how they helped he and Polly through challenging times with her parents the past two years. “The dogs were there, part of the family. It helped us deal with the stress and anxiety.”
In the book “The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think,” authors Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods note that the Greeks and Elizabethans both considered dogs to have healing powers.
They say the emergence of modern medicine cast a shadow on dogs, largely considering them unclean and a “menace to public health.” But that changed in 1980 with study at Brooklyn College showing that heart attack sufferers who owned dogs were 23 percent more likely to be alive a year later.
In 1987, the National Institutes of Health released the following recommendation: “All future studies of human health should consider the presence or absence of a pet in the home … No future study of human health should be considered comprehensive if the animals with which they share their lives are not included.”
Since then, seemingly endless studies back up the multiple health benefits of pet ownership, both dogs and cats, in recent years for everyone from children to the elderly for an array of problems.
For young children, exposure to pets may help develop immunities.
Last year, a study in mice further validates other research showing that exposure to “dog dust,” or the dried flakes of skin that fall from dogs, by young children may protect them against developing allergies and asthma in later life by altering intestinal bacteria.
“Perhaps early life dog exposure introduces microbes into the home that somehow influences the gut microbiome and changes the immune response in the airways,” says study researcher Susan Lynch, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, in a release following the study.
Similarly, a study of 397 children in Finland found those with dogs at home had fewer respiratory symptoms or infections and less frequent ear infections. The babies also needed fewer courses of antibiotics than other babies. The study was published in the August 2012 edition of “Pediatrics.”
In 2008, a study by the Minnesota Stroke Institute that followed 4,300 cat owners for more than 10 years found that owning a cat can cut a person’s chances of dying from heart disease by 30 percent.
The study’s senior author, Dr. Adnan Qureshi, says the study shows the benefits of relieving “psychological stress and anxiety,” which is related to cardiovascular events and especially heart attacks, of owning a pet.
An analysis of several studies by Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2007 found that dog owners are more active, happier and healthier than those who don’t own dogs. Published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, their analysis stressed regular walks were only part of the equation.
The study’s Dr. Deborah Wells says the walks not only lead to more physical activity but “facilitate(d) the development of social contacts, which may enhance both physiological and psychological human health in a more indirect manner.”
And despite the risks pets pose for falling, many studies have shown that the benefits tip the scales in favor of ownership.
And let’s not forget the benefits for the elderly.
One small study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2006 observed a boost in neural activity in seniors while they walked or interacted with a dog.
In an effort to seize on the theme of New Year’s resolution, the Charleston Animal Society is promoting the adoption or fostering of adult dogs and cats as instant companions in health and particularly exercising.
“Look at everyone who buys gym memberships,” says Society Chief Executive Officer Joe Elmore. “They go for a few weeks and then quit. If you have a dog, you’re obligated to walk him.”
Elmore adds that opportunities for people to get the benefits of exercising with a dog also extends to people who are willing to foster a dog and get it into neighborhoods with an “Adopt Me” vest.
After the holidays, Elmore says the animal society has fewer puppies and smaller dogs, which are less able to walk long distances and run, but a bounty of adult dogs that are ready to be adopted. Many are good running dogs, such as hound and terrier mixes.
Bees Ferry Veterinary Hospital’s Katherine Saenger hears of the health benefits of owning dogs and cats on a regular basis.
“I have many clients who admit that they would not exercise at all if it wasn’t for their dog,” says Saenger. “Lots of elderly people get up and get moving every day just because of their pet. I have countless clients who can attest to this.’
Like Elmore, Saenger says the benefits go beyond exercising. “Many people who have had a tragedy like the loss of a spouse or child tell me that they wouldn’t get out of bed if they didn’t have to take care of their pet. The same is true for people who suffer from depression. Their pet keeps them going.
“One woman was recently moved to a nursing home. Her cat was allowed to come with her and he never leaves her side. He simply makes her happy — to have something so familiar to her in her new residence. Her son says that he keeps her from getting confused.”
Saenger adds she had a diabetic client who claimed that her cat knew when her blood sugar was “out of whack.”
Yet Saenger says she still doesn’t think people understand the benefits of companionship that animals provide.
“Being loved and loving is good for your health and pets are good at providing us with love and the ability to love.”
On March 1, those who love to run with their dogs have a chance to participate in the inaugural Running of the Hounds “canicross” run on the trails of Middleton Place’s Equestrian Center in Charleston.
Canicross, more popular and known in Europe, involves a human running a dog that is attached to hands-free, waist harness, typically on a cross-country course.
According to Running of the Hounds Director Rebecca Gosnell, anyone who is planning to compete in the canicross division will need the hands-free, canicross harnesses (available online for $25-$65), but that dogs and their companions on a standard lease are welcome to hit the trails as walkers.
“That will offer big fun too for the whole family,” she says, “since Rover will find many interesting scents along the trails thanks to the wild turkey, deer and raccoons who call the property home.”
Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or email@example.com.