How Northern Ireland woman's pet saved her life - proof dogs really are good for your health
A pet pooch is good for you, according to the latest survey. Leona O’Neill talks to Lisburn woman Bekki Millar, whose Staffi saved her from a diabetic coma and Brendan Morrissey, who introduced a Shih Tzu to one of the care homes he manages
Dogs are not just cute, hilarious purveyors of unconditional love. Our four-legged friends could extend our lives and protect us from deadly diseases. Owning pets is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and dog owners have been found to have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and experience fewer heart attacks than those who do not have pets.
Now, the largest ever study of dog ownership and human health has found that dog owners had a lower risk of death due to heart disease. The Swedish study, published online by Scientific Reports, found that dogs ease stress, loneliness, and depression and inspire people to be more active and socially connected - all things that seem to help your heart and aid other health benefits.
Two people who know that to be true are Bekki Millar, whose dog Mia saved her life after alerting her to the onset of a diabetic coma, and Brendan Morrissey, who has seen first hand how a dog has brought residents of a Belfast care home joy beyond measure.
Bekki Millar (31) is a support worker for young adults from Lisburn. She is single and has two dogs, Staffordshire Bull Terrier Mia (5) and 'dolly mixture' Honey (7). Two years ago Mia saved her life when she alerted her owner to the fact that she was slipping into a diabetic coma. She says:
I have had very unstable type one diabetes for the last 21 years. About two years ago, my blood sugars went dangerously high. I took a lot of insulin to try and bring them down. I couldn't stomach oral fluids as I felt incredibly sick and was roasting hot. But I know that rest helps insulin get into the body so I went to get into bed and my Staffi Mia was already there as usual. I always say it's her bed and not actually mine.
I was trying to get comfortable but struggled to get to sleep. It just wasn't happening and my blood sugars just kept creeping up and up. I was taking more and more insulin, trying to get it to steady, but I think my body was blocking it.
I thought I needed to sleep to see if that would help. I slid in beside Mia in the bed and she obviously smelt my breath and that is what triggered her. When your bloods go so high there's almost an acidity to your breath. As I tried to doze off Mia started kicking me. She put all four paws into my back over and over again. This went on for around 10 minutes. I was dozing, but she was kicking me. I sat up to basically kick her out of the bed for stopping me from sleeping, but when I got up I almost collapsed onto the floor.
When I checked my blood sugars again they had gone so high the machine wasn't reading them. I called my mum who had to rush me to Royal Victoria Hospital A&E in Belfast where I was admitted straight away. I was so close to slipping into a coma. The doctors said they were surprised, due to my blood sugars, that I wasn't already in a coma. I was admitted to hospital.
I adopted Mia in England four years ago when her owner couldn't keep her and I will be forever grateful to her for saving my life, even though she was not trained to spot diabetic problems.
I work for Diabetes UK as a volunteer and we are getting involved with Assistance Dogs Northern Ireland to train pooches to detect low and high blood sugars. These dogs would live with people the way a guide dog would. But Mia had no training of any description. I think she was just a natural.
My Mia and my Honey - my gorgeous dolly mixture breed - mean the world to me. I could not be without them. They are my four-legged babies.
But I've always got that extra sensitivity around Mia in particular because she picks up quicker when I'm not feeling well. However, Honey will notice that, too.
If I'm not well, Honey will come and put her head on my lap and mummy me.
With Mia there is that little extra something, a really strong bond, that would be impossible to break.
Getting both of my dogs was the best decision I ever made. I love them so much."
Diabetes NI, tel: 028 9066 6646 or visit diabetes.org.uk Assistance Dogs Northern Ireland (ADNI), tel 028 7776 8761 or visit niassistancedogs.btck.co.uk
Brendan Morrissey (35) is the supported living manager at Clanmil, overseeing three care homes including Belfast's Giboney House where Gizmo, a two-year-old Shih Tzu is the 'head of de-stress'. He says:
I work with three care homes in Belfast. One of them, Giboney House in Belfast, is quite a small home with only 15 residents. About 18 months ago there were discussions about having pets at the home.
One thing we are really keen on is that the care home doesn't feel like an institution, but it feels homely. And one of the things we discussed was that homes have pets. In consensus with the residents the manager of the home arranged for a little pup called Gizmo to come and live there.
He has totally changed the dynamic in the home and transformed the atmosphere. He is just a little man. Everyone really loves him. He lives in the home permanently. He has one member of staff who takes a lead in his veterinary care, grooming and feeding and he has a basket in the lounge where he sleeps at night, but sometimes he can be found in bed along with some of the residents.
The idea was that animals can bring a lot of joy to people. The clients in our care homes, are frail and elderly, maybe with dementia and poor mobility. Before they came to us, some of them were quite isolated. You almost need to see it to believe it, but when Gizmo comes into the room, the residents' faces light up. They smile and it stimulates conversation between them. It prompts reminiscence therapy in dementia patients because they will talk about pets they had years ago. You can see their faces light up when they remember a beloved pet from the past. It brings a little bit of their personality back.
Caring for Gizmo also gives residents a common interest. He belongs to them all and he knows every one of them.
He knows who to sit beside. He knows whose knee he can get up on but he also knows who doesn't want him on their knee so he stands and looks at them. He knows whose bed he can get up on to and who doesn't want him there. When some of the residents take a nap in the afternoon, he can be found there snoozing beside them on their bed. He is really intelligent. He has fitted in really well with them all.
I can see a real difference in the residents since Gizmo arrived here nearly two years ago.
As much as we try to make Giboney House homely, it is still a care home environment with a lounge.
We will have residents who are not very active sitting around there, who might doze off or fall asleep. When Gizmo appears they sit up, they smile. He brightens their day and they become a bit more engaged. Maybe if they are low energy there's a little more engagement coming through. They want to sit up, they want to stroke him and talk to him.
If you have someone with dementia who can get distressed or unsettled, he will sit beside them and they will stroke him and even that is therapeutic and calming and helps them relax.
Gizmo means the world to the residents, but is also a key member of the Clanmil staff. In fact he has been given a very special title. He really is the centre of the home. Even in our head office he is well known. If any of our staff are up in the head office for training he comes up with them. He'll potter around the office and he'll sit with people at their desks.
Staff love to see him coming up. When he sits on their knee, and they engage with him, you can even see the staff de-stress.
Gizmo is very much one of the team.
We've actually given him the job title 'head of de-stress'."
Evidence underlines benefits of four-legged friends
Dogs can do more than get you exercise and boost your mood. Owning pets is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease - dog owners have been found to have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and experience fewer heart attacks than those who do not have pets.
There is some evidence that owning a dog is associated with lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
A large study focusing on this question found that dog owners had lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels than non-owners, and that these differences weren't explainable by diet, smoking or body mass index (BMI). However, the reason for these differences is still not clear.
Dogs' calming effect on humans also appears to help people to handle stress.
For example, some research suggests that people with dogs experience less cardiovascular reactivity during times of stress. That means that their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly, dampening the effects of stress on the body.