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Monday, November 18, 2013

Gracie Is A Big Girl! Pets and Dementia.

It has been about 7 years since I have had a dog. Logan was a rescue from the Toledo Humane Society, a mixed breed Shepard and something. He was a wonderful friend and member of our family for 12 years. For the past 3 years I lived with a pet skunk named Kroozer. Kroozer died suddenly on November 5th. It appeared to be a heart attack or stroke. He was fine, and then he wasn't.

My son came for a visit with his girlfriend Kristen, and their dog Fynn. Fynn is an all white Shiba Inu who weighs about 22 pounds. He is cute, smart, and full of puppy-energy. Having him around for a few days made me miss having a dog for the first time in many years. Having both my sons visit was the best time ever, but that is another story cuz right now I am talking about dogs.

My fiancee, Cindy, and I started searching for a dog to adopt. We knew we wanted a medium-sized dog, but were not too particular about the breed. We figured about 50 pounds or so would be good. We looked at a few mixed breeds, and were seriously considering an Australian Shepard. Then we started looking at other breeds, and mixes again.

Cindy found a listing online, and showed me the picture. It was a black dog with white trim, and it looked like maybe a Border Collie mix. A little smaller than what I was thinking. HAR! Well, over the next several days every time Cindy logged on to dog-search this same picture showed up. Finally I took a closer look, and read the description. This is what it said:

About Dori
The original small-dog picture of her.

This beautiful girl is Dori. She was rescued from a shelter in Indianapolis where she was originally found as a stray. Dori is a big girl of around 80 pounds and is believed to be a Newfoundland/Akita mix. She is estimated to be between 2-3 years old and acts like a big puppy. Dori does OK with most dogs but tends to get too rough and doesn't really know that she's hurting another dog, so she may do best in a home as an only pet.  Dori is hearing impaired, though not entirely deaf. It doesn't slow her down one bit though. She has learned some hand signals and would do great with some training in sign language. Dori is spayed, up to date on vaccinations, heartworm tested negative and microchipped. Her adoption fee is $200.

Eighty pounds! OK. Maybe she isn't a Border Collie Mix. Once I actually read the above description I understood. For some reason we decided to take a drive to Mishawauka Indiana on Saturday morning where "Dori" was going to be at an adoption event at a PetSmart Store. We had no real expectations, and both figured there would be some reason we would not be adopting this dog.

We walked into the store, and easily located "Dori". She was the biggest black dog around. Cindy walked up,
and stuck her hand right through the bars of the crate, exactly like you should never do with a strange dog. This huge black dog gently grabbed her fingers, and licked her hand. Diane, the very sweet volunteer in attendance, panicked a little until she saw the reaction. It was love at first bite.
Gracie is a big girl!

We spent about 90 minutes walking "Dori" around the store, and getting to know her, and see some of her personality. It was apparent that she was a big, deaf, loving puppy with little training, and few manners. Apparently that is exactly what we were looking for because at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon after a couple uneventful hours in the car we arrived home with her. We discussed a new name for her. Dori had been her kennel-name, but in keeping with family tradition she needed a new name to go with her new home. Since she was deaf, she did not respond to her name anyway, so it was purely for our convenience.

The first thing we found out was that she did not know how to walk up or down steps very well. I had to
show her how to get up the 5 steps leading to the deck. In her defence, a few other dogs have had difficulty with those steps because they do not have backs to them, and you can see right through. A little pushing and tugging later, and she was in the house. She explored the house, and decided she was home.

Gracie, and her bestest buddy - Fynn.
She tripped over the throw rugs. She walked into an end table. She slipped every time she stepped on the wood floor. She bumped into Cindy. She bumped into the coffee table. She bumped into me. When she finally tripped over the pattern on the rug she got her name. Obviously she was "Grace". Formally "Gracie Allen" because she is smart, funny, and has a stubborn streak all wrapped up with love. We call her "Gracie", and so should you. She can't hear you, but she is starting to read lips.

A few corrections: We took Gracie to a vet for a first check-up, and she weighed in at a healthy 106 pounds! Har! Remember when I thought she was too small? She appears to be a pure-bred long-coat Akita, not a Newfie-mix as at first thought. She appears to be almost totally deaf. Her eyesight is OK, but she is so clumsy you would think she is blind the way she stumbles around walking into things. She is getting better. We, and the vet, think she is closer to 2 years old. Gracie is missing her one upper right front canine tooth. Fangless! She does not bark with a lisp. In fact, she rarely barks at all, but does growl and talk loudly when playing.

It has been about a month since Gracie rescued us. She is already a full member of the family.  She has learned some sign language. She already understands her name, come, sit, outside, and is working on down and stay. She is begrudgingly learning to walk on a short leash without pulling. She is fine on a long leash. Her favorite sign is Scoobie-snack! Our throw rugs are never where they belong. Ever see a hundred-pound dog rug-surfing on a 5x7 area rug? She doesn't even try to go upstairs, but is content to sleep right at the bottom of the steps at night so nobody can get up or down without waking her. She is on guard! After all, at the end of the day, she is still an Akita!

So! What has all this got to do with frontotemporal degeneration (FTD)? I said all that, so I could say this:

A report released last week by researchers at the University of Maryland may have found the prescription for preserving and enhancing the mental health and physical function of the more than five million Americans suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is a wagging tail and warm nose.

Presented at the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organization (IAHAIO) Conference in Chicago, Ill., the study was done in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition. University of Maryland lead researcher Dr. Erika Friedmann explained the positive results of the study conducted among 40 dementia residents in assisted living facilities.

After 12 weeks of twice weekly 60-90 minute visits with the female Welsh Corgi dog used in the study, participants ranging in age from 56-92 experienced increased physical activity, measured in additional calories burned beyond activities of daily living, and no increase in depression which is typical of those with dementia.

“Normally we would expect to see a decline or deterioration, both in physical and mental health, in this population,” says Dr. Friedmann. “But the results demonstrate how animals integrated into therapeutic programs in facilities, rather than just relying on visitations from pet therapy volunteers, show real protocols can help specific issues.”

One gentleman in the study who suffered with dementia and Parkinson’s disease found it difficult to open the plastic baggie with his shaking hands to feed the dog her treats. However, instead of becoming frustrated, he asked the researcher if he could try again and the research team observed his improved mental and physical health on days the Corgi would visit.

Dr. Friedmann has conducted numerous studies in human-animal interaction (HAI) including a 1980s study of heart attack patients who adopted a pet after release from the hospital. Her findings were patients with a pet were more likely to be alive one year later than those patients who did not own a pet.

Replicating the study 15 years later, she found pet ownership not only relates to survival rates but also helped ensure social interaction for the patients with pets. This increased social activity helped the patients avoid the depression of isolation common among heart attack survivors.

Dr. Friedmann’s research led her to work with the American Heart Association to create a scientific statement on pet ownership as one prescription for cardiovascular health.
For the 15 million caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, finding memory care facilities which offer pet therapy programs or even considering pet ownership or visitations may help the overall health of a loved one.

In a 2009 study, Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practices, older patients attained significant improvement in perceived energy levels and reductions in pain, respiratory rates and negative mood state with pet therapy.

The animal interaction allowed these seniors to reduce their anxiety, fatigue and inertia and gave them a renewed sense of purpose, distraction from physical distress and a comforting reminder of home.
Pet therapy is not a new concept. There are anecdotal stories from the 1700s and the first recorded program was in the 1860s when famous nurse Florence Nightingale recognized animals provided social support in the institutional care of mentally ill patients.

Since then, the therapeutic effect of pet interaction for both young and old have been supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other organizations. Identifying benefits in pain management for terminal or chronically ill patients; reducing depression for seniors living alone and in isolation; and improving physical rehabilitation for those who recently had surgery or those with disabilities or disorders such as autism, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, are the wonderful results pets provide in our approach to holistic health care.

Jan Vincent, a board of directors member for the Animal Health Foundation, find animals have special healing powers and a sixth sense that connect with us even in unconscious states.
“Dogs have a keen sense of smell that is so acute they can identify the hormonal changes in our bodies such as when cortisol is increased giving us more stress,” says Vincent. “They are also keen observers – much better than people – and read our body language perfectly.”

Vincent says if a person is anxious, fearful or sad, animals, particularly dogs, will seek to soothe and nurture which makes them a magic potion for both patients and caregivers needing comfort.

Maybe Dr. Doolittle had it right – talking to the animals is the prescription we need for better health and wellness.

Some days are better than others, and Gracie makes every day just a little bit better.

Comments are welcome.