Pet Therapy: Pet Love is the Best Medicine

A growing body of research is revealing the psychological and physiological benefits that pet ownership confers on people of all ages. “We know from studies that interacting with pets can have a direct influence on your health, from lowering your blood pressure and increasing levels of serotonin to helping you get more exercise.” says Dr. Patricia McConnell, an animal behaviorist and the author of For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a type of therapy that involves animals as a form of treatment. The goal of AAT is to improve a patient’s social, emotional, or cognitive functioning.

The earliest reported use of AAT for the mentally ill took place in the late 18th century at the York Retreat in England, led by William Tuke. Apart from cats and dogs other animals that are in use for pet therapy are dolphins, horses, birds and small animals like rabbits and mouse.

Why and how pets can help as therapists- Who Benefits from Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy can be useful during following conditions:

  • patients undergoing chemotherapy
  • residents in long-term care facilities
  • patients hospitalized with chronic heart failure
  • veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder
  • children having physical or dental procedures
  • stroke victims and physical therapy patients regaining motor skills
  • mental health patients

Benefits of Pet Therapy for elders

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Improved Mood

Multiple studies have cited benefits such as improved mood and more social interaction — notable benefits since people with dementia and some within residential care are at risk for developing depression, which can further compromise their functioning and quality of life. One such study evaluated animal assisted therapy at an adult day care center for older adults with dementia. The results indicated that involving the people in activities with dogs decreased their feelings of anxiety and sadness and increased physical activity and positive emotions.

Calming Effect: In a study published in 2008, psychologists observed a calming effect following pet therapy in a small sample of nursing home residents. Other studies have shown that animal-assisted therapy yields significantly lower blood pressure levels.

Decreased Behavioral Problems: Another study measured the effects of a resident dog, as opposed to a visiting dog, in a nursing home. The researchers found that after the addition of the dog to the Alzheimer’s unit, the residents’ challenging behaviors significantly decreased during the day.

Improved Nutrition: One research study placed aquariums in a facility and found that residents intake of food and weight increased. This decreased the need for nutritional supplements, which lowered costs for the facility.

Research has also revealed many benefits to pet therapy like-

  • Decreased blood pressure and stress
  • Improved communication and reminiscence
  • Many people who are normally unresponsive to other therapies may ‘brighten up’ and ‘chat’ with
  • Pets may motivate and encourage the elderly to stay healthy and exercise, giving them a feeling of being ‘needed’.
  • Motor skills may improve with the assistance of an animal trained for pet therapy.
  • Increased physical motivation and lower cholesterol
  • Protection from the damages of stress
  • Improved mental wellbeing

Sometimes, as with age, seniors become more withdrawn and solitary, losing both the desire and ability to develop new relationships. Not only do pets offer much-needed companionship, but also they can increase the quantity and the quality of social interactions among their human owners. For example, seniors who are pet owners engage in more frequent conversations. Unlike their non-pet-owning peers, who tend to dwell on the past, pet owners focus on current interests and activities, which provide common ground with new acquaintances and increase the opportunity to build new social bonds.

Pet therapy for children

For children with special needs, the ability to interact with a dog, cat, or other furry friend can have a very positive impact upon their quality of life. Interacting with a pet can sometimes enhance recovery following a serious illness. It can change behavior, create a sense of responsibility and even improve a child’s ability to participate in therapeutic treatment leading to achievement in relation to identified goals and objectives. Children are often extremely trusting and easily achieve a level of intimacy with animals. This special bond contributes to pets’ effectiveness as co-therapists.

Reading: Children have probably been reading to their dogs for decades, but the concept of a formalized program in which therapy dogs and their handlers meet with children is only about a decade old. Credit for the birth of such a program is given to Intermountain Therapy Animals of Salt Lake City, Utah, which launched READ (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) in 1999, the first comprehensive literacy program based on children reading to dogs.

  • helps children focus better
  • improves literacy skills
  • provides non-stressful, non-judgmental environment
  • increases self-confidence, reduces self-consciousness

 In Physical Therapy

  • increases joint movement and improves recovery time
  • maintains or increases motor skills
  • provides motivation to move more, stretch farther, exercise longer

Mental Health:

  • lifts spirits and lessens depression
  • decreases feelings of isolation and alienation
  • encourages communication
  • provides comfort
  • increases socialization
  • reduces boredom
  • lowers anxiety
  • helps children overcome speech and emotional disorders
  • creates motivation for the client to recover faster
  • reduces loneliness

Pets can be good friends and relieves stress. One has to be careful while using pets for therapy, furry friend can be allergic to people. Pet therapy may not be useful for certain conditions. Pets may act as vector for bacteria and other microorganisms. It is normally requested that either people wash their hands or use an alcohol based antibacterial cleaner on their hands before touching the therapy animals.


Image credit: Image by Norman Bosworth from Pixabay  (Free for commercial use)

Author: Sumana Rao | Posted on: April 4, 2017

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