News & Events

How loving your furry friend can help your heart

By Darcie Fisher, Tufts Medical Center Correspondent 

Bob with a patientYou’d be hard pressed these days to find a more popular “employee” at Tufts Medical Center than Bob the Dog. Bob is a service dog who was brought in several months ago by the hospital to work directly with patients to help their stress levels and improve their overall experience. It turns out, they were on to something!  Animals are known to improve our mood and help calm us down, but did you know that hugging a pet for just 20 seconds can lower your blood pressure? 

We spoke with Brian Christopher Downey, MD, a cardiologist in the CardioVascular Center, about the many health perks that come with being a pet owner as well as with Bob the Dog’s “co-workers” about the important work he does every day.

Why is owning a pet good for your heart health?

“There are the obvious benefits of owing a pet such as companionship,” said Dr. Downey. “Studies have shown that owning a dog actually makes more sedentary people exercise, and that’s particularly true when they get a dog who needs to be walked more.  And that is obviously good for our health.” Walking more can lead to a reduction in weight and lower blood pressure.

Is there a certain kind of pet that gives their owner more of a health benefit?

“Having a dog would certainly make you more prone to increase your physical activity,” said Dr. Downey, “but, I can see the benefit of any pet that can show affection towards their owner.  Perhaps not a fish, but a cat or any sort of cuddly animal can help release that physiological response and those feel-good hormones.”

How do pets physiologically reduce stress?

“One of the major stress hormones in our bodies is called cortisol, said Dr. Downey. “It’s actually commonly referred to as the ‘stress hormone’ and it plays a big role in how the body responds to stressful situations.” Cortisol regulates a variety of functions within our body and impacts both our metabolism and immune function. It also controls blood sugar levels, so minimizing stress is important to our overall heart health. A recent study out of Washington State University showed that students who interacted with cats and dogs for just 10 minutes had a significant reduction in the amount of cortisol circulating in their bodies.

Meet Bob the Dog:

 Bob, a two-and-a-half-year-old Golden-doodle, has been making patient rounds at Tufts Medical Center since August of 2020.  He came to the hospital thanks to a generous grant from Dunkin' Joy in Childhood Foundation which the hospital’s Manager of Volunteer Services, Anne Marie Sirois and Director of Child Life Services Andrea Colliton applied for back in 2019. 

“Bob’s day starts around 7:30 in the morning,” said Anne Marie. “He loves to be in the office and greet his first visitors, which are usually hospital staff that come by to see him.” By around 9:30am Bob and Anne Marie are off to visit adult patients in units such as the ICU and regular patient floors. “The smiles that come onto a patients’ face when they Bob are just incredible,” said Anne Marie.

Bob takes a break around 11:30am when he heads up to Child Life Services – he gets some “gym time” spent on the outdoor roof deck where Child Life Specialists will play fetch with him and let him run around and get some energy out before he has lunch.  And then it’s off to visit the kids being treated at Tufts Children's Hospital  Andrea starts the afternoon by taking Bob to the pediatric general surgical unit and pediatric ICU. “A big reason we got the grant was to help the pediatric hospital,” explained Andrea. “We spend time going to rooms and visiting staff on the unit. There may be specific kids who are working on goals such as getting up and walking. Bob can be a great help and motivation to them, as well as with some kids who need extra support taking their medicine.”

Bob lives with Anne Marie when he’s not working and is treated like her family pet. She recalls one particular visit where she and Bob were walking down a patient hallway. “Bob just stopped outside a room and would not move,” said Anne Marie. “I knocked on the door and asked the patient if she would like to meet Bob. She just cried when she saw him and said the timing was perfect. We visited several times and she told me that her blood pressure had been high, but it was back under control after visits from Bob.”

“Bob brings a sense of normalcy and some of the trappings of home when people are in the hospital,” said Dr. Downey. “This is especially true for long-term patients. I’ve seen a couple of my patients who are waiting for a transplant interact with Bob, and he really brings a smile to their faces. 

As a service dog, Bob is different than therapy dogs who come in with their owners for a few hours here and there. He underwent over 2,200 training hours and was specifically educated by Canine Assistants in Georgia to work in a hospital setting. “Bob’s biggest piece he’s trained on is bringing that stress level down,” said Andrea.

“We have so many stories we could tell about how Bob has helped our patients,” Andrea went on to say. “A big part of what we do is try to normalize the hospital environment with Bob, and he’s such a good resource, especially with COVID where people can’t hug or touch.  The comments I’ve heard from kids are incredible. Some have said he helps them forget their pain and that he makes their day.”

Bob brought an unexpected perk in the love and support the hospital staff feel from him. “Some will come to find Bob and say they just need a moment with him,” said Anne Marie. “Whether it’s a hug, or to cry after a hard experience with a patient, he helps calm our staff and make them feel better, too.”

Bob already has over 1,600 followers on Instagram.  You can be one of them by following him here.

Posted February 2021 

The above content is provided for educational purposes by Tufts Medical Center. It is free for educational use. For information about your own health, contact your physician.