Gitanjali with her pets Bella and Motu. Photo by Goutham V
For Bengaluru-based social worker Gitanjali Jiwa Singh (56) who is living with congenital heart failure, her 14-year-old Border Collie, Bella and eight-year-old Labrador, Sparky aka Motulu (as she calls him), have been playing the role of cardiac alert dogs. Though they are not trained as service dogs, she is often left surprised at how they alert her when she feels anxious and her heart rate goes up.
Cardiac alert dogs, a concept widely popular in the West, are dogs specially trained to detect any changes in the heart rate and blood pressure of their handler. According to Service Dogs Training School, an online service dog training school that caters to people worldwide, cardiac alert service dogs recognise these changes and alert the handler by pawing, nudging, barking or other actions. Smell is known to be a dog’s most prominent sense and that is utilised to train them to be cardiac alert dogs.
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Bengaluru-based Rajeshwari R who organises the Human Dog Interaction Programme (a programme for improving relationships between humans and dogs) at workplaces, schools and other institutions, says, “these dogs fall under the category of service dogs. It is very common abroad. People in India are not very aware of these possibilities for medical services. They work mainly on narcotics detection. Also, there are other challenges like accessibility for dogs. These service dogs need to be there with humans all the time, but in India, many places do not allow dogs. Training for these dogs is too expensive and extensive. There is no supporting ecosystem.”
The service dogs need to be alert all the time and cannot afford to have any distractions as their human can develop the condition at any moment. “In public, they cannot be petted by other people as the dogs may miss the sign of any health issues and it can be detrimental for their human,” she says.
Shirin Merchant, a dog trainer and behaviourist in Mumbai points out that changes in body language and smell are the first things that dogs detect. “Based on that, dogs are trained to give a certain indication. They may lay down next to you, sit down or give you a paw. They are trained to distinguish between normal body odour and the odour when there are changes in the body that (for example) lead to an epileptic seizure. This advance notice from them can help their human to get to safety or inform others about what they can do to help,” she says. Also, a pioneer of dog-assisted therapy in India, she says that any breed can be trained to detect these issues but since the dogs will be accompanying the humans in public, breeds like the Labrador and golden retriever are preferred as they are known to be public-friendly dogs. “Indie dogs (native to the Indian subcontinent) can be really good at the job as well as they are very sensitive to smell,” she says, adding that she is planning to start the movement in India by training dogs to detect epileptic seizures and diabetes.
Do pets improve your cardiac health?
Gitanjali was diagnosed with heart failure 25 years ago, but she has been living with congenital heart disease since the age of 13. She was a good runner in school but soon she started finding it difficult to complete a run, coming last in races. She had difficulty adjusting to the heat and also had fainting spells. She visited several doctors with her mother, only to later realise that her heart muscles were weak. But her childhood was surrounded by pets and she believes that was a blessing. “They are a source of wonder and joy. Animals are empathetic. When you have a loving dog looking at you, giving you a non-judgmental response in this messy world, it is a huge relief,” she says.
Gitanjali recalls a recent incident during her consultation as a social worker when she visited a mother whose daughter was stuck in a country that was facing civil disturbances. The lady started crying when she narrated her worries. The episode got Gitanjali upset too; her heartbeat rose and she started sobbing. “Bella came, looked me in the eye and gave me a serious stare. When she got my attention, she conveyed a lot through her eyes, and I calmed down. I took a breather. She then walked away. She also gives nose bumps,” she recalls.
On a day-to-day basis, Gitanjali faces fainting spells, disorientation in her movements, feels nauseous and gets fatigued; her pets understand them very well. “Bella is exceptional and very protective of me. She understands my tone and knows if I am tired. She does not let anybody into my room then, including her human brother (my son). When I sound rejuvenated, she lets people in,” she says.
Her other dog Motulu picks up senses or the energy around when she feels faint and sits down. He then goes to her and puts his head on her knee. “It is heavy hitting considering his size, but this is his way of providing me comfort,” she says.
Relationships with pets are special and beautiful. They not only help us live happier but healthier as well. Several studies have shown benefits of pets at home and how they help improve heart health. According to the American Heart Association, people with prior heart problems have a 65 per cent reduced risk of death when they have a dog at home. Dog owners are also 31 per cent less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke, compared to non-dog owners.
Pets and lower risk of heart disease
Dr Suwen Kumar, interventional cardiologist, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, USA, says that owning a pet can indeed help with heart health. “Many studies show mental and physical health benefits of having a pet at home. The major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases is stress. Pets help reduce mental stress and you tend to stay physically active as well. When you have a pet, you are forced to go out at least twice every day. It breaks you from your sedentary lifestyle. They improve oxytocin, or what is called love hormones,” he says, adding that the bond with a pet is satisfying. Their love is unconditional and they have no expectations. “Dogs pick on your energy. Hence, if you are stressed, they can get stressed too,” he says.
It is said that a tired dog is a happy dog. Dr Suwen advises pet parents to ensure that their pets are physically active. “When you take them out for play, walks and runs, you stay physically active as well. People in the US understand that dogs can be stressed if they are not active and hence, they ensure to keep them active,” he says.
Dr Pradeep Kumar D, senior consultant, interventional cardiology, Aster CMI Hospital, Bengaluru, says that pets can offer heart health benefits. “There are small studies that are done about the health benefits of owning a pet, but that cannot be taken as a final answer to longevity or better heart health. People with pets are happier, less depressed and less stressed. And people with higher stress levels are definitely at high risk for heart attacks,” he says.
According to the article, ‘Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Health in the US General Population‘ published in The American Journal of Cardiology in 2020, pet owners tend to have higher hemoglobin, lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and a lower prevalence of diabetes mellitus (DM), systemic hypertension (SH) and stroke.
How do pets help people with heart disease?
Here are some benefits of taking care of a pet:
- They make you happier and healthier
- Reduce loneliness and depression
- Reduce anxiety with their comforting and calming effects
- Reduce boredom
- Help you stay physically active
- Help socialise and improve relationships
Dr Suwen says that owning a pet is part of the culture in the US. It is very rare to find a family without pets. “People are attached to them since the very beginning. One of my friends who is a junior was stressed out during his medical training. I suggested he get a pet and his life has turned around. I can see that he is happier and less stressed. There’s stress in every job but it does not persist back at home when you have a pet looking forward to your return,” he says.
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Dr Praveen believes that these research studies are more relevant for the people in the West. “In India, people continue to live in a joint family system. Older people live with their children or grandchildren and hence, they have support and companionship unlike in the West, where people live alone and get pets for companionship, especially dogs as they are more interactive and a stress buster,” he says. But Dr Suwen believes otherwise. He says elderly people in India might have support, but they may not be as physically active as pet parents. “Even though in India, older people stay with their kids and have love and support, they are not that physically active. You see the kids and the elderly, all hooked to their phones. In a family with kids and dogs, you will observe that kids are physically active too and do not tend to spend much time on their gadgets. But having said that, if you own a pet, you should also do justice to it. You need to provide them with proper care and training,” he adds.
Gitanjali says that Motulu is quite a celebrity as he gets attention from other dogs and the children in her society. Teenagers often visit her home to play with Motulu to get rid of their exam stress. “They come, put their heads on his fat furry fawn coat and go back laughing and giggling. He is a therapy dog,” she tells.
A well researched article. It is a pleasure to read the author confirming what pet parents have always suspected, that dogs are capable of giving more than unconditional love.
Thank you for the article. Scientifically put across. My dogs have materially provided support through extremely stressful times. They are rock solid. They are there, providing empathy, creating an empathetic environment. Brilliantly written article
This is absolutely true. Dogs act like therapists.
Very well articulated
I love pets
This will make people aware of how dogs help you to survive