The Healing Power of Pets

**Originally posted by Matt Cavallo on Mango Health at http://blog.mangohealth.com/post/143011766224/the-healing-power-of-pets**

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the spring of 2005, and I was laying in my hospital bed wondering if I was ever going to walk again. A month after my hospital discharge, I was devastated to find out at the follow-up appointment with my neurologist that I had multiple sclerosis.

I would like to say that I handled it better, but I didn’t. I went into a deep depression. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to return to work and that my friends and family would treat me differently. I started pushing people out of my life, and I even told my wife that she was young and could go out and find someone else who wasn’t damaged, like me. I was only 28 years old, newly married, and afraid that the hopes I had prior to my MS diagnosis were gone forever.

One such dream that seemed suddenly dashed was that my wife and I would get a dog. I had grown up with dogs, and they had always played a special role in my childhood and adolescence. I missed that unique bond in my adult life, but my wife had wanted to wait until we were more settled down before taking on any additional responsibilities. With my new multiple sclerosis diagnosis, it seemed irresponsible. I was barely taking care of myself – how could I take care of a dog?

Over the next month, I stayed trapped in my shell of depression. Physical therapy helped me learn how to walk again, but I was still unsteady on my feet. I was afraid to go back to work and rarely went out in public. My wife and my family started to worry about me. They wondered how they could break through and find the person they knew and loved before the MS diagnosis.

In July of 2005, I was turning 29 years old. My wife and my mother were adamant that I have a birthday party, so I finally agreed to a small family barbeque at my parents’ house. One by one, my family members sat next to me and offered words of reassurance. My multiple sclerosis was the last thing I wanted to talk about, but the conversation about my disability continued.

Happy Birthday Ted - The story of how Matt got Ted is chronicled in Matt Cavallo’s memoir, The Dog Story: A Journey into a New Life with Multiple Sclerosis.

A scanned Polaroid collage of the moment I opened the present to when I got Ted and how he’s grown. Ted will be 11 in May of 2016 and still is going strong.

After cake, we were onto the presents. The final gift was a book – I could tell from the size and feel of the package. I was thinking it was some holistic diet cure book or one of these motivational “You’ve got MS but everything will be okay” books. I tore open the wrapping paper and it was a book about Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers.

I opened the cover of the book and there was a lovely handwritten note from my wife saying that a litter had been born, and I was getting one of the male puppies as my present. As looked around the room, I locked eyes with my wife and she came toward me.

I gave her a hug, told her I loved her, and promised that I would walk the new puppy twice a day, no matter what symptoms I was having. It has been almost 11 years since that moment, and I have not missed one day.

My dog Ted is my gentle, wet-nosed nudge and daily reminder to get up and keep going, despite my chronic illness. Every morning he wakes me up at 5:00 AM to start our daily exploration around the neighborhood. It is a quiet, peaceful time of day. Ted and I are able to run freely, taking in the morning air and enjoying the first glimmer of the desert sunrise. We arrive home just as my wife and kids are starting to stir and get up for the day.

Ted has kept me walking over the course of over a decade, and he has not shown any signs of slowing down. He has been a faithful companion in my battle against multiple sclerosis, and without him I don’t know that I would have been able to cope with my diagnosis as well as I have.

I am not alone. There have been a number of studies to suggest that animals have healing powers, many of which are outlined in Allen Schoen’s Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way We Live. For instance, research at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Hospital showed that people who own companion animals report a highly significant reduction in minor health problems.

The same study also suggests that households with dogs showed a 400% to 500% increase in walking, and pet owners report marked improvements in psychological well-being in the first month after acquiring their animal. Other studies have shown that animals can help lower blood pressure and with psychosocial conditions as well. If the responsibilities of a pet are deterring you from adopting, keep these health benefits in mind!

Just as I start my day with Ted, I end it with him as well. After my boys’ bedtime, Ted and I head out into the evening darkness for another walk to the park near our house. This has become a meditative routine for both of us, allowing me reflect on all that happened in the day. Some days are harder than others for me to walk, but having Ted by my side makes me stay true to my promise I made to my wife in 2005. And for that reason, he is truly this man’s best friend. Matt Cavallo shares his personal experience with how his dog helps him cope with his multiple sclerosis every day

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