DEAR READERS: The medical and psychological benefits of animal companionship have been well documented: Children with pets often have fewer allergies and infections, and adults can relieve loneliness, depression, anxiety and high blood pressure just by walking outdoors with their dogs. And this fall, researchers at the University of Leeds in England reported that watching cute animal videos for a half-hour reduced blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety in medical school students studying for end-of-term exams.
“I was quite pleasantly surprised that during the session, every single measure for every single participant dropped some,” said study leader Andrea Utley. (Full story: CNN, Sept. 27)
The restorative power of spending time in some natural setting -- such as a wooded park, lake or prairie -- has been long recognized, as I detail in my book “Animals and Nature First.” New research has shown that “forest bathing,” another name for the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku that began in the 1980s, is highly therapeutic, helping alleviate depression and boost the immune system.
While spending time in wooded areas, we inhale compounds called phytoncides that are produced by various trees. Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities that help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of T-cells, a type of white blood cells that are the immune system’s first responders to any virus.
Of course, not everyone has access to a forest, prairie or even an urban arboretum, but Mother Nature can still provide some therapeutic support. Sound recordings of falling rain, ocean waves, birdsong and insect noises can put one in a meditative, relaxing state, as can essential oils derived from various trees and herbs. Essential oils of cypress or pine in a diffuser are potent sources of phytoncides. Such aromatherapy is also used widely for the medical and behavioral/emotional benefit of companion animals. Burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) or inhaling its essential oil can reduce chronic pain as an anti-inflammatory, and can also activate poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses!
Getting out of our usual home, office and urban environments -- and away from the related exposure to harmful nonionizing radiation, electromagnetic fields and “electro-smog” from computers, traffic-monitoring systems and smartphone telecommunications -- may prove very therapeutic indeed for our ailing population. Conserving, protecting and restoring green spaces in and around our communities is probably as important to our physical and mental health as it is to reducing the global climate and extinction crises.
DEAR DR. FOX: I need advice on my almost 10-year-old cat, who has recently started having seizures. Maybe her diet isn’t good. She eats Whiskas dry food, plus one pouch of wet food. As a vegetarian because of my love for animals, I don’t like cooking meat, but if it is better for her, I will.
After the seizures, she is very disoriented, which lasts quite some time. She walked up to my barking dogs, who are used to her but who are not friendly (and who were also agitated at the time after witnessing her seizure). Once, she tried putting her nose in the open gas flame of the stove.
I hope you can advise me. I am in India. My cat has had a blood test that showed slightly low levels of platelets, but nothing else wrong. She has been prescribed tonics and something to increase platelets. -- R.D., Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India
DEAR R.D.: There are many causes for cats’ seizures that may not be revealed by routine blood tests, which typically only rule out acute infections, diabetes or other endocrine diseases. Among these other causes are trauma, migrated parasites, stroke and cancer.
Any application of (or exposure to) anti-flea insecticide could cause seizures in cats. A friend of mine told me her cat started to have seizures after being given a cat treat (Temptations); eventually, even the rustle of the package triggered a seizure. One of the ingredients listed on the treat package is “natural flavors,” which could mean monosodium glutamate -- a neuro-excitatory chemical! (So is aspartame, the artificial sweetener.)
I am sending you my home-prepared diet for your cat which may help improve her condition over the dry kibble and moist cat food you are feeding her, as well as instructions on safe flea control. Ideally, your cat should always be kept safely indoors.
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxOneHealth.com.)