By: Dr. Jack Stephens
I have personal experience with the more severe consequences of chronic stress causing disease. I cannot say what caused my cancer. Although I never smoked, in 1989 I acquired throat cancer of the tongue and tonsilar area. Initially, after a persistent sore throat, my doctor thought my tonsil, which had been removed as a child had grown back. My cancer, very likely was at least precipitated by continued chronic stress over many years in my new vocation of being the CEO of a pet insurance company. In trying to keep pet insurance and my former company in business, both financially and operationally I endured many years of unrelenting stress. Looking back, I was ahead of the perceived need for pet insurance and certainly very undercapitalized for such an enterprise. I simply started pet insurance too early, before pet owners were ready for the concept. It took many years to establish the company and the associated chronic stress placed a heavy toll on me emotionally, physically and financially. All of these are common factors in stress related illness. Although we know stress can bring on illness and disease and that stress can even cause death, we do not yet know how stress is involved in causing cancer. It is thought that the chronic affects of the stress hormone, cortisol diminish our immune system, making us more vulnerable to disease and diminish the healing process of the body.
I firmly believe I won my battle with cancer in great part because of a strong Human-Animal bond I developed with Spanky, our miniature pinscher. He was an Angel to my wife and me in so many ways in those awful times. Spanky brought us joy with his playful antics, such as chasing and jumping at his shadow. He made us laugh at a time we did not feel like laughing. His entertainment and the joy he brought us allowed us to forget the debilitating affects of the treatment for my cancer. He also forced me to get out of the house in the fresh air and take walks. He would bring me his leash, then proceed to jump and bark at me until I would relent and take him and my Labrador retriever, Remy for a walk. After our walks, sure enough I felt better, otherwise I would tend to sit around and feel sorry for myself. Other nights he seemed to know that I was simply too sick from the chemotherapy or radiation to take our walk, he would let things be. How he knew is a mystery. He seemed to grasp what was going on with me both physically and emotionally and respond accordingly. Upon reflection years later I realized he never demanded the walks before my cancer treatment started and soon after my treatments and recovery he ceased initiating the walks! This change in behavior, as any “dog” person knows is indeed strange, because dogs are creatures of habit. They have schedules for feeding and activities that is built into their biological clock. They are able to tell time, when it comes to enjoyable events, such as feeding time, departing for work, bed time or play time.
If stress can cause or exacerbate disease, then the lack of stress can assist in preventing disease and aiding the healing process. After my experience, I began to observe how a close relationship with a pet made a difference in others who were in stressful situations, such as the loss of a spouse, an impending surgery or a divorce. Bonded pet owners had a positive outlook and a focus on life and their pet, instead of their problems. My wife and I, when confronted with people going through stress, started encouraging the idea of acquiring a pet because of our experience and observations. We noticed quickly that this simple act of introducing a pet reduced their stress and improved their lives in former non pet owners. This was long before we knew there was a biological basis for pets improving our body chemistry. In addition we noticed depression was reduced or eliminated by having a bond with a pet. Yes, pets can help reduce depression.
An incident several years back vividly demonstrates that pets can reduce depression. A man in casual conversation, which was stimulated by our pets, shared with my wife and I that he was soon to have prostate surgery and he was very uneasy about the surgery. To make matters worse, his wife had died the previous year, his family was out of state and he had no friends nearby. He spent a lot of time alone and could not get excited about much of anything, since he wife passed on. Even to our untrained observation he had classical symptoms of depression.
We told him about Spanky and how he had made my ordeal with cancer more bearable. How he made a huge difference in my healing process, my mental outlook and certainly decreased tensions in the family. We suggested he get a puppy, which to our surprise he readily agreed. He bought a miniature pinscher puppy and we did not see him for a couple of months, until after his surgery and treatments. The change was clearly evident; he was transformed by that puppy, which he named Buster. He was not the same person we met before. He was so excited to tell us how much his life had changed for the good because of Buster. He bonded quickly with the puppy, so much so that he was out of the hospital in record time. He related that all he could think about while in the hospital was getting home. He missed his dog, he worried that Buster would not eat while he was in the hospital and would not get enough exercise. He was anxious to resume their walks. The doctors were shocked at his lack of post operative pain, how quickly he was dismissed from the hospital and his overall recovery. Whereas, before Buster, his doctors were concerned about his lack of support and depression.
Our new friend said not only did having the responsibility of the puppy help him recuperate, but walking him around the neighborhood had introduced him to new friends. Who can pass up stopping someone walking a puppy? He said before Buster he would walk the neighborhood, but never met anyone, now through Buster he knows all of his neighbors. He was no longer depressed, he had new friends, he had responsibility and he had unconditional love from Buster.
We asked him about his long term prognosis with his cancer, which he replied, “Oh, I am fine, I don’t have time to be sick, Buster and I have a trip planned and he wants a playmate, so we are shopping for a new buddy for him.” Indeed, this was not the same person, who just a couple of months previously was overly preoccupied with his health, his lonely life and worried about the upcoming surgery.
Physicians have long known that depression can lead to prolonged recovery from illness or surgery and even cause health problems if not resolved. There is of course medication for depression, but why not the natural method of having a beloved pet? However, from my observations it requires a “bonded” relationship with a pet, not just a pet in close proximity, such as the back yard. The pet must be part of your daily existence and that you care about. Although, there are some benefits from even a fish tank, the benefits are not as pronounced, as when a bond exists.
“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”