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Dogs may play a key role in a cancer patient's recovery

Julie Sprankles is a freelance writer living in the storied city of Charleston, SC. When she isn't slinging sass for SheKnows, she enjoys watching campy SyFy creature features (Pirahnaconda, anyone?), trolling the internet for dance work...

When it comes to our health, it looks like dogs really are man's best friend

If you're a dog person, you've probably either been told or told someone at some point that studies show having a dog can help you live a longer life. And as a dog owner, you have no problem believing this — to be honest, most of us can't imagine what life would be like without our pups.

But can the unconditional love of dogs actually help save people's lives?

More: 7 times when quality pet care is worth every penny

Through her own personal journey from grief to healing after losing her sister to gastric cancer, author Arlene Weintraub maps out the potential dogs have to help unlock the mysteries of cancer in her book, Heal. Weintraub's well-researched findings allude to the fact that dogs' simple, unconditional love actually plays an important role a cancer patient's healing.

In an effort to learn more about the fascinating ways dogs may be helping humans curb sickness, we reached out to several doctors, pet experts and authors to get their take. Here's what they had to say.

"Every study shows their benefits"

According to Dr. Bernie Siegel — an author, public speaker and retired surgeon — there are numerous health benefits to having companion animals. In fact, the very title of his latest book speaks to the heart of the subject: Love, Animals & Miracles: Inspiring True Stories Celebrating the Healing Bond.

"One study in Australia showed a 6 percent mortality rate at 12 months after a heart attack in a home with a dog, and a 24 percent mortality rate in non-dog homes," he told SheKnows. "Every study shows their benefits."

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While there is no hard and fast scientific explanation for why dogs are so restorative for humans, Siegel suggests the answer lies in what we learn from them. "They teach us a reverence for life," he said. "Also, animals teach that communication can be through consciousness and non-verbal."

"Dogs are amazing healers"

When it comes to the healing effect dogs can have on those afflicted with cancer, Sally Morgan has firsthand knowledge. A physical therapist for pets and people, she is what Siegel would call a "cancer thriver" — and she attributes part of her success to having her beloved pet by her side.

"I had my service dog Comet come with me to support group meetings, radiation therapy (he stayed in the booth outside) and chemo treatments," she shared. "He was a huge support to everyone in the room during chemo treatments, brightly greeting each person." Morgan even found comfort in being matched with an oncologist whose mini-Aussie greeted her and Comet at the door on their first visit.

Like Siegel, Morgan believes so strongly in the healing power of pets that she poured her time and energy into compiling her research and personal experience into a new book called Dances of the Heart: Connecting with Animals.

In the book, she offers data about cancer survival rates for those with a dog in the home versus those without and "it's quite significant that those with dogs live longer," she says.

Based on Morgan's research, she believes healing in humans is fostered by the physiological reactions we have when we are around them. "Animals lower your blood pressure and heart rate. If you reach heart synchrony with an animal — called heart coherence by The Heartmath Institute — you can also lower your heart rate in the presence of an animal. I did a mini study at a nursing facility where I worked where people patted dogs for up to 15 minutes and the top number of their blood pressure dropped by 50 points in every case. Dogs are amazing healers," she said.

"Research shows the positive impact of therapy dogs on cancer patients"

As the executive director of the Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative, Steve Feldman essentially devotes every waking day to exploring the health benefits of the connection between people and their pets.

"HABRI funds, gathers and shares scientific research into the health benefits of the human-animal bond, or the mutually beneficial relationship between humans and pets," Feldman elaborated. "HABRI's vision is for the human-animal bond to be universally embraced as an essential element of human wellness."

More: Good news, dog owners — older dogs are actually easier to train than puppies

What HABRI's research has to say about the healing power of dogs is, well, pretty doggone impressive. "The shared bond between dogs and their owners has been linked to many mental and physical health benefits," Feldman said, pointing to a Journal of Veterinary Behavior-published study summarizing the benefits of dog ownership.

In regard to cancer, Feldman says there are findings specific to that as well, saying, "Research shows the positive impacts of therapy dogs on cancer patients. HABRI is currently funding a study on the effects of animal therapy on pediatric cancer patients and their families."

While not yet published, preliminary results to that Canines and Childhood Cancer study can be found here.

Feldman also underscores the same notion Morgan pointed out, which is that the presence of dogs is physically therapeutic for people. "Other studies have focused on the impacts of animal therapy to decrease anxiety and improve therapeutic outcomes in cancer patients," he said, citing case studies on decreasing anxiety in cancer patients (Purdue University) and animal-assisted therapy for cancer patients (University of Calgary).

Plus, the proof is in the pudding, as they say — comprehensive research compiled by HABRI shows that having pets boosts people's bottom line. Explained Feldman, "HABRI conducted an economic study on the health care savings of pet ownership, which found that pet owners, by visiting the doctor 0.6 times less than non-pet owners, save $11.37 billion in U.S. health care costs."

"A dog's unconditional love... may help prevent diseases"

Since 2003, Dr. Joseph Mosquera has been a regular medical and health expert and contributor to Univision, Telemundo, as well as CNN and NBC’s Today. He has served as a medical and health expert for Consumer Reports Health since 2008, and is a practicing physician in Newark, New Jersey.

And Dr. Mosquera — who is also the founder of Saludmóvil, the nation’s first bilingual and mobile medical, health and wellness destination for the Hispanic community — agrees that having a dog in your home could very well help improve your overall health.

"Feeling good through having a dog's unconditional love not only may help prevent diseases but can also help healing," he said. However, Mosquera does offer one caveat to consider.

"Although it is unproven that having a pet reduces your risk of cancer, there is very little risk in terms of it being an unhealthy thing for you. Unless of course you have allergies, it can't hurt in my opinion," he offered.

More: You use natural remedies on yourself — why not use them on your pet?

So if you have allergies to dogs, be mindful that could complicate your health if you are battling a more serious condition as well. Otherwise, though, it would seem doctors and experts are on the same page about the healing power of pets. No one really knows why or how in all certainty, but they do know that having a dog boasts numerous health benefits to humans.

As always, it's best to consult your own doctor regarding any serious health conditions.

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