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Animals win hearts, influence people, says pet expert

On a recent visit to a nursing home, Pat Curtis was introduced to the newest resident - a little Boston bulldog. ''Was he ever homely!'' she recalls in mock despair, adding, ''but everyone there thought he was gorgeous.

''There was one very elderly lady who took him on his morning walk. I asked her, 'Do you take him out in all kinds of weather?', meaning, was she able to go out when it got cold and snowy. And she said, 'Oh, sure. It's okay. He has a coat.'

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Mrs. Curtis pauses, then says quietly, ''Isn't that charming?''

''Charming'' is a word Pat Curtis uses a lot when she talks about her favorite subject -- people and their pets. A former journalist, publisher, and senior editor for Family Circle magazine, she left her job several years ago to devote her full time to writing about animals.

''I'd always been a hard-core, card-carrying animal lover,'' she explains, ''but 20 years ago, writing exclusively about animals would have been premature.'' There always have been people who loved animals, and animal books and stories always have had a market, she explains, but nothing in the past can compare with today's pet boom - when six titles on the bestseller list are books about cats, when a champion Shaded Silver American Short Hair cat gazes out from the cover of Time magazine, when membership in the Dog Writers' Association of America is at an all-time high.

One of America's leading pet experts, Mrs. Curtis is the author of four children's books about animals and writes a regular pet column for House and Garden magazine.

''Today's research strongly suggests that what's called the 'human companion-animal bond' is an important factor in the lives of many people,'' she says. ''People who are close to animals have always known this, but now it's become a subject of respectable scientific scrutiny.''

Mrs. Curtis is especially interested in how pets can help to reestablish trust and self-confidence for older people.''There's not a lot of humor in the lives of the elderly,'' she notes, ''and one of the great things that pets bring to older people are the funny things they do.''

As spokeswoman for the Pets Are Wonderful (PAW) Council, a nonprofit, public service organization based in Chicago, Mrs. Curtis travels throughout the United States, talking about animals on television and radio, and often visiting nursing homes where residents increasingly are being encouraged to have pets.

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''We took a little puppy to one home recently,'' she recalls, ''and put it on the wheelchair-tray of a gentleman who'd had a stroke. He hadn't spoken for some time, but when he saw the puppy, he looked at it and began to laugh. Finally he said 'puppy.' After a while, the puppy fell asleep and the man kept stroking it, and when we left he was much more in contact (with his surroundings) than he had been when we'd arrived.

In a recent article for Smithsonian magazine, Mrs. Curtis described a visit to a state hospital for the criminally insane in Lima, Ohio.

''A young social worker there got the idea of giving certain patients hamsters and gerbils and parakeets and parrots,'' she says, ''And I want to tell you, it is some scene. You walk through all these security things, and then out into a courtyard where they've got deer and rabbits. And then you go into a sort of dormitory atmosphere where birds are flying overhead and hamsters are going to town in their little cages and men are walking around with their guinea pigs. (Having pets) has transformed these patients in the sense that it has made them accessible to treatment and established trust between them and their therapists.''

In the pet column she writes for House and Garden magazine, Mrs. Curtis says she usually deals with pet care and safety, since that's what readers want most to hear about. ''But once I've got them reading, I sneak in a good message about humane treatment of animals or about one of my favorite causes,'' she says. ''I can't go so far as to say 'save the whales,' but I can say that it's best to have two pets instead of one if everybody's out of the house during the day.''

Mrs. Curtis raised her family as a single parent, and she says that having Katy the kitten, Becky the cat, and Benji the dog meant a lot to her son. ''Lots of time, you hear people say,'We'll get a pet and it will teach the child responsibility,''' she begins, ''but . . . no cat or dog should have to depend on a seven-year-old child for its meals or its walks. However, the pet can become a wonderful tool by which the parents can teach the child responsibility. If they treat the animal with consideration and respect and love, the child gets the message.''

Mrs. Curtis is quick to add a note of caution for anyone thinking about giving a pet as a Christmas gift, however. Because of the noise and bustle, the holidays are not a good time to introduce a young animal to a home. But buying a gift certificate from a local humane society or designing a homemade, personalized gift card can give potential pet owners time to consider the responsibilities involved. Once they decide they really want a pet, they can go to a shelter and choose their own puppy or kitten - hopefully, for a lifetime relationship.

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