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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Impact of Pets

Aired January 2, 2000 - 8:22 a.m. ET


COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: Once exclusive to kings and queens, they're everyone's best friends today. This is a millennium tale worth wagging.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: That one guy sounded like my brother.

All right, now we have focused much of our millennium reporting on the achievements of mankind over the past thousand years or so.

MCEDWARDS: But what about man's best friend? What role have pets played through the ages?

For their achievements we turn to CNN's Anne McDermott.


ANNE MCDERMOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Did you have a good day, Sparky? How about you, Fluffy?

According to a recent poll, when we get home from work, more of us greet our pets than our spouses. But then do our spouses love us no matter what? There are about 235 million pets in the U.S. -- that's almost a pet a person.

The Spara (ph) family, for example, has quite a few -- cats and rabbits and Brittany and Bear.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Bear, and we call her "Gummy Bear" now because she doesn't have any teeth.

MCDERMOTT: They also have pet chickens.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: This is Buffy. She's really kind.

MCDERMOTT: But pet historian Harriet Ritvo says menageries such as this were not always the norm.

HARRIET RITVO, AUTHOR, "THE ANIMAL ESTATE": Pet keeping as a widespread practice is only a couple hundred years old.

MCDERMOTT: Before that, dogs and cats were for the rich and royal. Rulers in old England, for example, put pets in their portraits. This is what's known as a top dog.

The royalty of ancient Egypt were feline fanatics, but they were also fond of their fish, which they sometimes adorned with jewels.

And in her book, "Reigning Cats and Dogs," Katharine MacDonogh writes that early emperors of China decreed dogs look like this. And to obtain that look, they would pull pups' tongues to lengthen them and...

KATHARINE MACDONOGH, "REIGNING CATS AND DOGS": They also broke the noses to get them flatter.

MCDERMOTT: Most animals, meanwhile, had to work for a living. But that began to change with the emergence of the middle class in the 19th century. Average folks had more leisure time, more money, and suddenly luxuries like Labradors were within reach. And no one needed working dogs anymore. Oh, sure. Some are still involved in volunteerism, but most of them just hang out and go for rides these days.

For the longest time, dogs were the most popular pets and the pride of presidents, from FDR to WJC. But these days, cats are...

RITVO: Cats are...

MCDERMOTT: Well, cats are slightly more popular these days, having clawed their way to the top.

But exotic birds are becoming increasingly popular. And so are turtles and lizards -- ooh, lets see that again -- lizards. even pigs. And, yes, pets all have to eat, all different kinds of things.

MCDERMOTT (on camera): Do fish eat carrots?

DANIEL KIM, PET SHOP OWNER: Carrots? I don't think so.

MCDERMOTT (voice-over): Well, think again.

Mass produced pet food began to take off in the '20s. Why, explorer Richard Byrd even took some Purina to the pole with him. And today people spend plenty on pets -- more than $20 billion a year in the U.S. Now that includes clothing, though pets themselves seem to prefer the natural look.

But natural may be on the way out. Meet RoboDog. Well, it will never replace the Chia Pet, and nothing will ever replace the real thing.

Face it, it's the only way on earth most of us will ever get...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unconditional love, boy.

MCDERMOTT: ... unconditional love and absolute obedience. Right, boy? Now, stay.

Anne McDermott, CNN, Los Angeles.

(END VIDEOTAPE) MCEDWARDS: Well, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of pets and other animals in the lives of modern society, and with us from Washington to explain more about these angels in fur is veterinarian Michael Fox. He is the author of several books about pets and writes a syndicated column, "Ask Your Animal Doctor."

Welcome Dr. Fox.


MCEDWARDS: Dr. Fox is going to tell us about something called animal therapy. What is it?

FOX: Well, it's the discovery that animals can be healers. And we often ask what can animals do for us? But we turn the coin around and ask, what can we do for animals? Part of this discovery of what we can do for animals is to realize that they're not simply objects, toys for children or whatever, that they can actually heal us.

For example, I have a colleague who suffers from Tachacardia. It's a cardiac difficulty, especially when she is experiencing stress, and she discovered that far better than taking medicines was coming home to her very fluffy pooch and fondling it. And her heart rate and blood pressure would go down.

Now there are three levels where animals can become healers. One is this physical level, evoking the relaxation response.

The next level is the emotional level, where the elderly are found to suffer from less depression and anxiety syndromes when they have an animal companion.

The third, I think, is the greatest healing power of animals, and that is to lead us toward a sense of reverential respect for these other creatures, a deeper understanding, a respect for their rights and for their intrinsic values. And that is coming. This is a change in human attitudes and values that will make us ultimately more human.

MCEDWARDS: But what is it about the interaction between animals and humans that allows for this? Where's the magic?

FOX: The magic is -- in earlier times, animals like the flying eagle or the great wolf, this was seen as power. It was part of our mythology, part of our language. It became incorporated in children's fairy tales and in folkloric history and so on.

Then, as we domesticated animals and started bringing them into the home, they became even a more integral part of the family. So they are treated like family members. People talk to their animal companions, they give them human names. We humanize them, and they humanize us, as well.

MCEDWARDS: Is there any empirical evidence that shows us that animals actually can play this role?

FOX: I think the empirical to verify this is in my book, "The Healing Touch." I don't know if you can take a close-up of this, but it shows the heart rate relaxation response. The heart rate slows down from resting to deep relaxation. And during this process, the white cells in the body, the immune system, is enhanced. Sol this is healing at a multi-level way: immediate physiological responses then affecting our immune system and so forth. And this is part of the healing power of animals.

I think deeper processes go on, for example, with children -- the unconditional love with the animal, being able to share things with the animal that the child can't necessarily share with a parent, the deep unconditional love that the animal can give when the child feels rejected...

MCEDWARDS: All right, Dr. Fox...

FOX: I'm quite convinced that children make better parents when they're raised by animals, too.

MCEDWARDS: All right, hold that thought for just a moment. We're going to take a short break here.

HARRIS: That's a very interesting idea.


HARRIS: Well, we're still not sure exactly how pets can improve your physical and mental health. Well, maybe the animals themselves can demonstrate. We've invited a few pets to CNN Center this morning. You may have heard one of them moments ago.

MCEDWARDS: Coming up, Meg Croot and some special volunteers from Happy Tails Pet Therapy. Stay with us.


MCEDWARDS: Well, Dr. Michael Fox, veterinarian, is still with us for a discussion on the role of animals in actually improving human health. And as we're talking about animals, let's meet a few. Beya (ph) is a 4-year-old female black Lab. She's right down here on the floor -- we can see her. And -- there she is. And Harley is an 8- month-old Bijon Friez (ph). Did I get that right?


MCEDWARDS: And they're here with their human companion, Meg Croot. She is the spokesperson for Happy Tails Pet Therapy right here in Atlanta. Welcome.

CROOT: Thank you.

MCEDWARDS: Tell us about your program.

CROOT: Well, Happy Tails is an all-volunteer organization, and we serve metro Atlanta, and each volunteer has their own pet, a cat, a dog, or even a bunny. And we visit different facilities like hospitals, children's facilities and hospitals. We do rehabilitation with the dogs. We go to assisted living and nursing homes, youth detention centers, and psychiatric units.

MCEDWARDS: What do you actually do with the pets?

CROOT: Well, we do one of two things, either animal-assisted activity, which is...

MCEDWARDS: What's that?

CROOT: That's a more informal visit in which we might go into a nursing home and allow the dogs to socialize with the patients and the patients might brush them and pet them and just enjoy being with them. And the second thing we do is called animal-assisted therapy, and that's a more formal intervention in which we work with a health care professional that would direct the outcome of what happens with the pet and the patient.

MCEDWARDS: How do people respond?

CROOT: People respond in amazing ways. Just walking in the building this morning you see people get all warm and friendly at the sight of the animals and, as someone mentioned, these are people that normally don't even say good morning, so...


CROOT: People respond in a very positive way. I think they enjoy seeing animals and they know that the animals accept them and provide them love, and they respond so positively.

MCEDWARDS: Leon Harris is with us here as well. He's got a question for you.


HARRIS: Yes. Let me jump in for quick second, because I hear you talk about how the people respond. I'm just out of curiosity, do you see any response in the animals themselves? Do you see any changes in them as they have these interactions with people?

CROOT: Absolutely. Our animals love to go on visits, and they know when they get their scarf on and we say, you want to go on a Happy Trails visit, let's go, they get excited. Their tail wags. And they really enjoy the attention, and I believe that they know they're doing a good thing. And they know what their job is. Their behavior...

HARRIS: You really think they know that?

CROOT: I know they know that. Their behavior changes and they really respond and rise to the occasion of interacting with the people. And --although sometimes we try to define and orchestrate the outcome, the most amazing thing is when something spontaneous happens.

For example, Beya was playing on a playground with a group of children with severe disabilities and she got thirsty. So I poured a bowl of water and one little boy about 3 years old came over and he was watching her lap the water up with her tongue, his teacher ran and got a sippy cup, gave it to him, and she said, "See, you can drink water, too." And he drank from his cup, and I noticed tears were coming down her face. And she said, "It's the first time he's ever drank," because he was afraid to drink -- he had, had a lot of surgeries and he associated drinking with pain. But because he saw the dog do it, he knew it was OK.

MCEDWARDS: Dr. Michael Fox, are some animals better at this kind of work than others?

FOX: Yes. They're are individuals just like some people are better healers. And I relate this to the power that animals have of empathy, of being able to put themselves in the place of the other person. You might think that's extraordinary for animals, but I've had a lot of experience, especially with dogs, and some are deep empaths. One of the most dramatic correspondences that I've had from my newspaper column, which is in the Bible from Lazarus, is the dogs who heal by licking.

I've had a number of elderly patients with, you know, skin problems and they tried everything. They let their dog lick and they were healed in no time. And recent discoveries have shown natural antibiotic and wound healing substances in animal saliva. So even at the physical level they can be healers for Lazarus. But at the emotional heart level it is astounding. And we don't really have the signs to explain it yet.

MCEDWARDS: All right. Dr. Fox, thanks very much. And we will be back with more of this discussion in just a moment and more pets. Stay with us.


MCEDWARDS: Veterinarian Dr. Michael Fox is with us for this discussion, and we are now joined by an entire crew from entire Happy Tails Pet Therapy here in Atlanta. Thank you very much for coming. We've got Connie Ahalt and you're with Jasper, I understand. And Lynne Cory with Blue. Lynn, tell us what you do.

LYNNE CORY, HAPPY TAILS PET THERAPY: Well, we take Blue to different facilities. Last year, he accompanied to a hospital on physical rehab, and a lot of the patients would pet him, and it was very relaxing for them, as well as they were able to get some mobility and flexibility in some -- in arms, and doing exercises like this.

MCEDWARDS: So really, literally just sitting with him on their lap, touching...

CORY: And brushing using a brush, and they were able to move their arms more like this, and it was very relaxing. They would talk to him and be very calm.

MCEDWARDS: Connie, what's your experience been like?

CONNIE AHALT, HAPPY TAILS PET THERAPY: Yes. Jasper and I visit some psychiatric in-patient facilities, and a lot of the patients have been cat lovers and cat owners, and so they really look forward to seeing the cat. And he's very calm, some of the more shy patients, or the patients who are withdrawn really gravitate to the cat.

MCEDWARDS: And what do you see? What did they say and what do you see when they gravitate to him?

AHALT: They're just really touched. And patients will say other patients have smiled for the first time in a week, or have responded for the first time in days, and it's very rewarding.

MCEDWARDS: Meg, is this something fairly new, or not?

CROOT: Well, it's developed over the years, and as more Americans have pets and look for activities to do with their pets, and they realize also the healing powers that pets have, it became a popular volunteer activity. And Happy Tails was formed in 1991, so we've been around a few years in the Atlanta area.

MCEDWARDS: Dr. Fox, if I could just bring you in at this point, could you tell us whether there's a certain rapport between humans and animals? I mean, do some people react to certain kinds of animals more than others?

FOX: Yes, some people have certain phobias of cats, or of dogs and so on, often related to childhood experience. But especially when we're dealing with children and the elderly in a hospital or hospice situation, there is an opening of the heart there and the dynamic, the energy flow between the animal and the child or the elderly person is remarkable. And very often, the elderly person will start talking about childhood memories and just coming back to life, while when there was no animal in the room and just other people, they're withdrawn and depressed.

MCEDWARDS: Meg, is this for all kinds of patients?

CROOT: Yes. I think that the animals are enjoyed by young and old alike, by people who are in physical, emotional, or mental pain.

MCEDWARDS: But what about the really seriously ill?

CROOT: Well, on -- pet therapy can be used in that situation, too. We have a story that happened in Happy Trails with a cat and there was a young man who was semiconscious, he had been in a coma and he hadn't responded a lot, and when they placed Fluffy the cat on his bed, he reached out to stroke her and he was starting to begin to have mobility, and so we know that people in even severe situations can respond.

MCEDWARDS: All right. Thank you all very much for joining us today.


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