A Doggone Prescription for Improved Health

LaRue, Neil and Lorena Wright, MD, FACE

Editor’s Note: In the Fall 2014 issue of EmPower® Magazine, we featured an article about Zeke the Cat, who shared his experiences with diabetes and dispelled some myths and misconceptions about the condition in humans (and animals). Here, LaRue the Dog – with a little help from his human guardians – “talks” about how he helped his dad improve his health following retirement.

Dear Zeke,

I was really impressed by your tale of your journey to better health after developing diabetes, so much so that I’d like to share my own tale with you.

Let me introduce you to Neil. A 62-year-old guy with a great sense of humor, he loves life and his family (that includes me, of course). Before he retired early some eight years ago, he was always very active, stayed in good shape and was pretty happy with his annual physical check-ups. He would regularly share his lab results: HDL cholesterol levels (“h” for “healthy” or good cholesterol) readings in the upper 40s (mg/dL) while the goal level for men would be over 40mg/dL, and LDL cholesterol in the lower 100s mg/dL (LDL is the “bad” cholesterol, “l” for “lousy”). I learned an optimal LDL level goal depends on how many risk factors for heart and blood vessel disease might be present, for example, whether one has had a heart attack previously, whether one smokes and the family’s medical history, among other factors. When factoring in his risk factors, Neil had optimal levels for a man his age.

Then retirement started.

Neil became less active, spending more time around the house and back yard, and less time out and about as he used to do while working. He remained busy, for sure, but not what one could call really “physical.” Oh sure, he did not exactly sit — no way! He repainted the entire interior of our house.

He installed new flooring. He updated all of the cabinet and door hardware throughout the house…and on and on. But he didn’t really “move” regularly or consistently.

Work would progress and then there would be a break before the next project, sometimes days, sometimes weeks and sometimes months. His diet was the same as before, but ow wow (bow-wow), his LDL shot into the 150s. When I saw his results, I was pretty alarmed and decided it was time to take action. Since very little else had changed in Neil’s life, I figured more and consistent “moving” exercise was the answer!

I started the process by taking Neil for daily walks around the neighborhood. These short walks then turned into longer walks. It was not easy. We would come to a corner, he would look at me and I would have to put my paw down — we weren’t done yet! Fortunately, he agreed to keep on walking. More progress was made when our daily walks turned into twice-daily walks. This gave both of us an opportunity to get out and see the always-changing Seattle neighborhoods surrounding us. And, we met a few furry friends along the way…some a bit too friendly, if you ask me (ahem!).

But in Seattle (where we live), with the past year being the rainiest ever recorded in history, there were temptations to stay indoors — oh yes, what temptations! Even though I really, really just wanted to snuggle in my warm and dry pad at times. But, NO. I insisted we get out or else “an accident” would be imminent. At times, I had to drag Neil out – that sure was easier after the new flooring was put in.

I’m proud to share that Neil’s LDL cholesterol has dropped back to his previous levels, and I’m ready to take the credit for it. Because of me, I honestly feel that Neil is a happier, healthier and more loving human being. I know his wife Lorena feels that way too. A measure of that fact is that my treat numbers have gone up, but not too much. After all, I have a physique to maintain.

Thanks for listening to my story. Oh, I didn’t introduce myself…I’m LaRue, a let’s-go-for-a-walk, exercise-inspiring, rescued-from-the-shelter pooch. And to be completely honest, I think my humans and I make each others’ lives better in our own special ways.

A note from my humans:

Our companion animals play multiple roles in our lives with a direct effect on the health of humans. In the 1980s, after research first showed an association between pet ownership and a very significant decrease in death one year following a heart attack, the value of animals in promoting health has been studied increasingly. For example, a study from Australia showed that pet owners had significantly lower plasma cholesterol and triglyceride levels compared with non-owners.

Additional studies have shown a positive effect in lowering blood pressure. The evidence led the American Heart Association (AHA) to publish this statement in May 2013: “Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, may be reasonable for reduction in cardiovascular disease risk (CVD).”

The AHA backed up this statement by posting points summarized from multiple studies:

  • If you adopted a pet, you were more likely to have lower blood pressure, particularly systolic (the higher number of a blood pressure reading).
  • If you owned a pet you were more likely to have lower cholesterol and/or triglyceride (sugar fat) levels.
  • If you did not own a companion dog, you were more likely to have diabetes and smoke.
  • If you owned a dog, you were more likely to be more physically active.
  • If you owned a dog, you were less likely to be obese. The factors for weight management were felt to go beyond the obvious of increased physical activity. Factors such as social encouragement to walk, perhaps even feeling more safety being out walking were felt to play a role in better weight for those sharing their home with a dog.
  • And if you owned a dog, you were more likely to have improved mood and emotional well-being, which affects chemical body signals that result in improved blood vessel function and, in turn, results in more appropriate blood pressure and reduced cardiac arrhythmias. Interestingly, in some studies pets showed more positive effects on owners’ health than medication. And independent of the severity of cardiovascular disease, dog ownership in one study decreased the death from a repeat cardiovascular event by about four-fold.

With this very good news, particularly for dog lovers, the potential benefits of pet ownership continue to receive considerable attention. But the American Heart Association adds to their 2013 benefits statement that pet adoption, rescue, or purchase should not be done for the primary purpose of reducing cardiovascular risk.

Before adopting a dog, you should take into consideration many different factors, including time, space and resources, as owning a pet is an important decision that carries many responsibilities. Owning a pet requires feeding, access to fresh water, providing love and attention and much more. Make sure that your lifestyle allows for this. And if you decide a companion pet is an enhancement to your life, consider adopting from rescue organizations, your local shelter or your community’s humane society.