by Ann M. Colford

When Dr. Marty Becker talks about pets and the bond that exists between people and our companion animals, it's easy to get swept up in his enthusiasm. But Becker, the Bonners Ferry veterinarian whose newspaper column reaches an estimated 13 million readers and who's known to millions more as the vet-in-residence on ABC-TV's Good Morning America, is more than just a guy who can talk at length about how great it is to have a pet. In his recent book, The Healing Power of Pets, Becker combines anecdotal evidence with testimony from health care professionals to demonstrate the health-giving -- and often life-giving -- power of companion animals. He will be at Auntie's on Friday to discuss the book.

Becker has written for magazines, journals and newspapers, and co-authored two popular Chicken Soup books for pet lovers, but he says, "This book was the hardest thing I've ever done. We took nine reporting trips to 27 states, interviewed 350 people, and read 53 books and more than 200 studies."

Despite the challenges, Becker felt like he had a mission: to get the word out about "The Bond," that sense of connection between people and their companion animals, and the healthy benefits that can accrue to those who share their lives with a pet.

Just about anyone with a pet has stories to share; mention your cat or dog at the office and see what happens. Because he is such a visible advocate for pets, Becker constantly hears amazing pet stories from people in airplanes, TV studios and lecture halls. But both he and co-author Danelle Morton, who has written for The New York Times and People magazine, wanted this book to be more than a collection of sweet and sentimental stories about animals. Getting the scientific evidence was an important part of the research.

"When people hear the title of this book, they'll say, 'Oh, I believe that's true,' " he says. "We've intuited it before this, but now it's not just anecdotal. We've matched the science to the soul."

Becker first became aware of the potential in animal-human relationships as a student at Washington State University's School of Veterinary Medicine. But it wasn't until he was sidelined with a prolapsed disc in his neck that he truly felt the healing power and sensitivity of animals first-hand. Unable to perform even simple tasks in the horse barn on the family's ranch, Becker had to stand by idly while his wife, Teresa, completed the chores. That's when their quarter horse, Sugar Babe, stepped forward with the equine version of laying on of hands.

Sugar Babe pulled up a little and began nibbling over my neck with her vibrassae, tactile hairs similar to a cat's whiskers but of varied lengths and scattered across the surface of her nose and mouth. She roamed until she came to rest at the exact spot on my neck that hurt.

She still had a head of steam from her run in the paddock and her breath shot from her nostrils in forceful ostrich plumes. At 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, a horse's body temperature is a few degrees higher than ours. Her hot breath on my neck in the cold barn was like a steam treatment. As she settled, I adjusted to the ebb and flow of her breath and felt myself relax for the first time since this soul-shaking experience. I was alive, with my loved ones, and I was home: three simple facts that I had taken for granted and that, as a result, were very nearly lost to me. In that simple way that animals have of bringing you back to your world, Sugar Babe was showing me that my healing would have to start here.

While researching the book, Becker found that his own experience was not unique. Not only does he document several other incredible stories of animals being attuned to the physical and mental health of their human family members, but he also draws in health care professionals and veterinary researchers to lend scientific credence to the stories. The animals' sensitivities range from an awareness of human emotional states to the uncanny ability to warn of impending medical catastrophes, such as heart attacks and potentially deadly changes in blood sugar levels. The stories lead to the primary question: How do the animals do it?

"They have incredible senses," Becker explains. "They know many words, and they can pick up on tone of voice and body language. Especially body language. When they come up to you, they run a complete cat scan."

In the book, he refers to research studies showing that dogs typically understand about 180 human words. Additionally, their keen noses often detect the changes in human blood chemistry that indicate an approaching medical emergency. Another study showed that simply petting a cat or dog lowered blood pressure in a majority of subjects. And Becker says that the emotional support given by pets should not be lightly dismissed. "When people are sick or in the hospital, other people never know when to come or when to go. But the animals always sense the right thing to do, when to get close and when to move away."

The latest demographics indicate that about 65 percent of Americans share their homes with some kind of a companion animal, Becker says, and most of these people need little proof to convince them that pets are beneficial to human health. To the other 35 percent, who do not have a pet and think claims of a human-animal bond are baseless, he says, "You can't possibly know what it's like until you experience it for yourself."

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