Hollywood's best friends celebrate animal health

By W. Reed Moran, Spotlight Health

With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.


After asking the question untold millions of times, we finally know "who let the dogs out": Judd Nelson.

Nelson was the leader of the pack Saturday night in Beverly Hills as Hollywood's sleekest kittens, hippest cats, and most notorious dogs prowled the red carpet to celebrate the 15th annual Genesis Awards.

"Animals can't speak for themselves, and most of them don't have agents, so I guess we're all here to give each dog his day," says Nelson. "Seriously, beyond basic animal rights awareness, it's important to acknowledge how they selflessly contribute to our health and welfare."

Sponsored by the Ark Trust, NYPD Blue's Charlotte Ross joined Nelson at the hosting podium to recognize people in the news and entertainment media who have creatively and courageously spotlighted animal-rights and animal-welfare issues.

But what the celebrities in attendance most ardently communicated was their common appreciation for what animals contribute to all of us.

"Animals react with love and without judgment — but they're subtle teachers," says Ross. "My 3 dogs serve as a touchstone, reminding me there's many more important things in life than my work."

Creature comforts

Americans own approximately 130 million dogs and cats and untold numbers of fish, birds and reptiles. Over 60% of U.S. households reported having a companion animal.

Nelson, who has two pound-rescues at home, grew up with chocolate Labrador retrievers. "They invariably knew who was sick in our family and loyally stayed by their side till they recovered," says Judd. "I know it sounds crazy, but their power to understand how we feel is often beyond our ability to explain."

Research has also shown that contact with pets develops nurturing behavior in children, and may lead to their enhanced empathy as adults. And animals can often signal when people have 'gone to the dogs'.

Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem points out that a lack of normal compassion towards animals can often serve as an early warning sign of unseen emotional troubles that need to be addressed. "Animals are not only healers, they're also a bellwether of our basic emotional well-being."

Patients with AIDS who have pets experience less depression and benefit from reduced stress. The companionship of dogs also helps children cope with the serious illness or death of a parent.

Even the toughest guys are moved by the comforting effects of animals.

"I probably wouldn't have survived as a kid if it weren't for my best buddy," says WCW superstar Bill Goldberg. "When my parents were going through a horrible divorce, my 5-year-old Rottweiler would sleep in my bed, listen to me — even run away with me. He pulled me through the toughest times."

Colleen Copelan, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, has made a specialty of pet-provided therapy.

"Therapy dogs provide a warm and instantly friendly welcome for the fearful and uncomfortable. Dogs and other animals make people feel loved, safe and worthwhile. They also provide an unthreatening introduction to the therapeutic relationship."

Although Animal Assisted Therapy has been used intermittently for decades, Copelan discovered its utility by pure serendipity when she brought her puppy Jake to the office.

"Shortly thereafter, Jake took responsibility for meeting my patients," says Copelan. "He'd instantly connect with them, bring them stuffed animals, and sit in their laps."

The therapeutic benefits of Jake's attention and affection soon became clear.

"People who otherwise couldn't connect with any human being found themselves able to open up over time in the presence of this volunteer therapy dog," says Copelan. "I found this a crucial opportunity to connect as a therapist with patients who otherwise seemed unreachable."

While we are always amazed by reports of animals physically rescuing people from danger, therapy animals often perform equally heroic acts on an emotional level.

"Pets in my practice have undoubtedly contributed to saving human lives," says Copelan, who also serves as medical director of the adolescent eating-disorder unit at Vista del Mar Hospital in Ventura, Calif.

"In my practice, I'm dealing with a 20-25% mortality rate among my severely anorexic patients," says Copelan. "My experience has led me to create a program where each of my residential patients will be assigned her own therapy dog over the full course of treatment."

For Copelan, experience has shown that continuous interaction with trained animals will contribute to the following therapeutic goals:

• Empathy — Children see animals as peers. They find it easier to empathize with ingenuous, honest animals and begin to learn to trust others.

• Outward focus — Disturbed individuals or those with low self-esteem focus on themselves. Affectionate animals help them relate to others.

• Emotional safety — Children find it easier to trust an animal than a therapist. Animals provide unconditional acceptance and a bridge across their gap in trust.

• Physical contact — Touch is absolutely essential to human well-being and to a sense of belonging.

For some people, touch from another person is not initially acceptable. Especially among the physically and sexually abused, connecting on an affectionate, tactile level is a hard-fought antecedent to recovery.

Diane Bell, pet partners coordinator for the Delta Society, a group devoted to improving health through service and therapy animals, lauds the diverse services these animals provide.

"Occupational therapists find stroke patients recover range of motion through interacting with the animals," says Bell. "Speech pathologists have had repeated success with the hearing-impaired when animals are trained to react to the patients' commands."

The Delta Society reports that patients improve fine motor skills through brushing and petting animals and increase their mental acuity by increased verbal interaction and elevating their desire to connect with the world around them.

And the benefits are not just psychological.

Studies have consistently shown that animals also provide more tangible benefits to our physical health. Pet owners enjoy lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and have decreased levels of loneliness and isolation compared to non-owners.

And seniors who own dogs report as many as 20% fewer doctor visits than their pet-free counterparts and have higher one-year survival rates following coronary heart disease.

But the total contribution of pets and other animals to human well-being, while significant, still remains more qualitative rather than quantifiable.

"In the end, it's all about reestablishing love, connection and self-worth," says Copelan.

"The delightful surprise is that harm we do to each other can be miraculously healed with the help of those creatures who, by their very nature, love us unconditionally."

So the next time your heart aches or your cholesterol climbs, listen to Nelson and Hollywood's "best friends" and consider getting a prescription filled at your local animal shelter.