Healing Power of Pets

Patty Fuller
By Patty Fuller September 15, 2011 14:56

Ernie Cuzzocreo with his devoted Daisy

Daisy, an endearing little Yorkshire terrier and Tia, a cat who by turns was aloof and affectionate, are just two furry examples of how animals can help and even heal people facing medical problems or personal crises.

That any pet could be a significant factor in its owner’s overall health may first stir doubt. But studies consistently show they can be good medicine.

Seniors who own pets and live independently tend to be in better health physically and mentally than those without pets, according to a study cited in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. And a growing number of nursing homes nationwide have adopted the Eden Alternative – a care philosophy that includes plants and animals (both inside and outdoors) and regular visits by children.

Dogs, cats and even horses inspire their aging owners to be active, local professionals agree.

“It’s the unconditional love that pets give,” says Dr. Wes Wittman, a veterinarian who in 29 years of practice in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties has talked with thousands of seniors about their beloved animals.

“Just having that other being next to us can be very comforting,” he says. “With older people, having an animal also gives them something to live for, a job to do – taking care of this little creature.”

Wittman cited one client who lived on her own into her 90s thanks largely to her horses. “She kept them until the day she died,” he recalls. “I remember her saying she just loved her horses and that they’re the reason she got up every morning.”

Linda Happel, who directs Tuolumne County Behavioral Health Department’s Senior Peer Counseling program, regularly talks with clients in their 70s or older. Pets give people – especially seniors – a sense of purpose, she says.

“I think they keep their owners alive in a lot of cases,” says Happel.

Sherry and Stu Galka, professional dog trainers and obedience class leaders in the Mother Lode, have worked with thousand sof dogs and their owners over the past 45 years. Many times they have seen dogs comforting people facing severe medical or emotional issues. During visits to long-term care facilities, the Galkas’ therapy dogs have even prompted silent, despondent patients to suddenly brighten and talk to the canine visitors.

“It’s the most wonderful and amazing thing,” Sherry says.

And right in the Galka home recently, Sherry’s dog Kallie came to the rescue when Stu, 78, took a fall.

“Kallie was the lifesaver. She stayed right by his side,” says Sherry. “He was badly bruised, and she sat by him for hours while he was recovering. She’s a calming influence. She’s my dog, but his buddy.”

More proof that pets can both help and even heal their owners comes in these real-life stories:

Tasha’s touch

Cannie Waters, 76 and a Tuolumne County resident most of her life, has painful but inoperable back problems that have plagued her for more than two decades. Several years ago, a doctor advised her to walk regularly and suggested that a dog might inspire her to stay active.

The result is Tasha, a reddish-brown dachshund now at her side almost constantly.

“Sometimes I get to hurting so badly I have problems walking. Tasha follows me to make sure I’m OK,” Waters says. “And sometimes, when I get depressed, she’ll come over and sit on my lap and want to lick my face. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

For much of her adult life, Waters held jobs ranging from house cleaning and providing in-home care to working at a downtown Sonora restaurant. Then a fall left her with badly injured discs and unable to work. Because she also has sleep apnea, doctors ruled out back surgery because of the anesthesia it would require.

So, about three years ago, she followed her doctor’s orders and got Tasha.

As that doctor predicted, caring for her dog prompts Waters to remain as active as possible. In return, Tasha cares for Waters.

Waters’ back problems persist, but her health has improved in other ways since Tasha’s arrival. Her blood pressure is lower and she is happier.

“I don’t focus on the pain as much,” she says. “I know Tasha has helped me. You couldn’t give me a million dollars for this little dog.”

Good dog, Gully 

Jennifer McGeorge and Gully in San Andreas

An abusive marriage and a difficult divorce several years ago left Jennifer McGeorge with emotional issues ranging from anxiety and obsessive behavior to agoraphobia – a fear of going out in public.

Despite medication and therapy, she rarely left her San Andreas home.

“I used to have an outgoing personality. But when I got sick, I couldn’t talk to people,” she recalls. “Now I have Gully and I get out. Gully goes with me everywhere.”

McGeorge, 41, got the long-haired Yorkshire terrier-Chihuahua mix at a friend’s urging.

“She said I should get a service dog and I thought, what’s a dog going to do for me?”  McGeorge remembers. But a friend found Gully, and the little dog’s effect on his new owner was almost immediate.

“Within a week, my family was asking, ‘Who are you? You’re even going places.’ I was nervous at first, thinking it would be more responsibility,” she says. “I do take care of him, but he takes as much care of me.”

In the more than three years she has had Gully, McGeorge says her anxieties have eased to the point where she shops for herself, helps others when she can, and attends church functions. She even flew to Missouri two years ago to see her grandmother. Gully, of course, joined her on the trip.

Although still in therapy, McGeorge gives Gully credit for improving the quality of her life.

“It’s like medicine without taking medicine. He just calms me down,” she says. “When I start to have a migraine or get stressed, he’ll come over and curl up next to me. He knows.

“We work as a team. I am stronger because of him … I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Gully.”

Diminutive, devoted Daisy

Ernie Cuzzocreo is a 77-year-old Army veteran with an accomplished career in telecommunications engineering.

He hardly slowed down in retirement: He and his wife turned the old Tuttletown schoolhouse into their home. He was an active Rotarian for years, helped with blood drives and, on horseback, won trail-riding championships.

But these days, his most-prized possession may be his ankle-high sidekick, Daisy.

The Yorkshire terrier – first intended as a gift for his wife – goes with him just about everywhere and is both devoted friend and guard dog.

Disabled due to chronic back problems dating back years, Cuzzocreo nevertheless still tackles house and property projects. And he sometimes overdoes it. Earlier this summer when he fell down while at work, Daisy was right there to comfort him.

“When I’m down in my shop, and I can’t stand too long because of my back, I think Daisy knows and will jump up as if to tell me, ‘It’s time to sit down, boss,’ ” he says.

Cuzzocreo’s back problems started after he fell down a set of concrete stairs while working in Alaska many years ago, and intensified while he was living in Florida. He’s since had several surgeries, and now deals with almost constant back pain and numbness in his left leg.

Forced to sell his trail-riding horse, Cuzzocreo says he “moped around” for quite some time. That changed about seven years ago, when he presented his wife Linda – or Mouse, as he affectionately calls her – with a birthday present: a tiny Yorkie pup.

“But Daisy just bonded with me,” he laughs. And Mouse, who loves watching her character of a husband with the pint-sized terrier, says this is one gift she was happy to give back.

“She’s his partner,” Mouse agrees. “She keeps his spirits up.”

A caring cat

Liz Martinez, 53, has seen both the profound comfort pets give and how they have helped her through difficult times.

The longtime Copperopolis resident adopted Tia while living briefly with in-laws in the Bay Area. She remembers how her cat, while agreeable, wasn’t one to sit in laps and nuzzle. But 3-year-old Tia somehow found her way to a nearby convalescent facility, and took to a quadriplegic teenage girl who rarely had visitors.

“She wouldn’t even sit on my lap, but she would sit on that girl’s lap for hours,” Martinez says. “Tia would go there the first thing in the morning and sometimes she would stay there all day.”

Tia later helped comfort Martinez during an abusive marriage and the tough divorce that followed. “She somehow knew what I was going through and she was always there. When I would cry, she’d lick my tears.”

Tia lived until the advanced feline age of 20, and Martinez still describes her as “just the best.”

Happily married now, Martinez has two grown children and a granddaughter. She also owns two dogs and two cats, including Trouble, 15, and 7-year-old Charlie. He was a tiny, starving kitten who found Martinez not long after Tia died, and his markings are almost identical.

“I can’t imagine not having any pets around,” Martinez says. “They complete a home.”

Spike, Willy and a better life

Diann Fowler and Willy

Diann Fowler, 60, has battled health problems for much of her life. She suffered a ruptured appendix at age 7. The resulting high fever almost took her life and left her with learning disabilities.

Today, she is a recovering alcoholic who over the years has grappled with diabetes, depression, and multiple ailments stemming from a major car crash. While in her 30s, she had trouble finding a job and was homeless for a time. Fowler says her dog Spike, an Alaskan malamute mix, helped her survive those tough times.

“Spike was with me through thick and thin,” she says.

She moved with her canine companion to Sonora in the early 1990s. When Spike died at age 13, Fowler vowed never to get another dog. She didn’t want to face such grief again.

Then, about 10 years ago, a friend asked her to go for a drive and the two ended up at a Greeley Hill home. Fowler recalls standing in the yard, turning toward bushes and seeing a puppy crawl out toward her.

“I took him in my hand and never let him down,” she says, laughing at the memory of her first day with Willy. “He has been a joy in my life ever since.”

A Welsh corgi-chow mix, Willy is almost always near his owner and has been her constant source of comfort. He provides comic relief, too.

“Willy knows when I’m sick and he’s the gentlest dog. He lays close by me,” she says. “And every single day, I burst out laughing because of something he’s done.”

Despite the many challenges she has faced, Fowler speaks openly about her life and her tone is noticeably upbeat when talking of Spike or Willy.

“I really do believe I’m alive because of my pets,” she says.

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors

Patty Fuller
By Patty Fuller September 15, 2011 14:56