Pet Therapy, How Four-legged Love Goes Far

It’s been a long day at work. There seems to be no end to the suffocating deadlines and endless meetings. But as you walk through the front door, a wagging tail and panting smile makes everything better.

Research shows that owning a pet, or just interacting with one, can have health benefits including lowered blood pressure, reduced stress levels and an improved sense of wellness. Pet therapy is the practice of using animals to help people recover from health issues; everything from cardiac issues to cancer,to physical disability to behavioral health issues.

pet therapy

Many people facing chronic or long-term health issues can experience depression and a sense of hopelessness. Pet therapy, which usually consists of short visits of 10-15 minutes with a certified animal (yes, the dogs receive special certification before they can ‘practice’ pet therapy!) and their handler.

When it comes to mental and behavioral health, pet therapy has has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression. Feelings of isolation and alienation lessen and individuals who struggle with communication are more able to find their voice.

Other mental health benefits of spending time with an animal include:

  • increased socialization
  • reduced boredom
  • lowered anxiety
  • providing aid to children to overcome speech and emotional disorders
  • creating motivation for the client to recover faster
  • reduced loneliness

Psychologists have been working to better understand why animals can make people happy for more than 30 years. A 1980 study started a flood of research in this area when it showed that heart attack patients with one or more pets were 22 percent more likely to live more than a year after their heart attack.

More recent work shows that interacting with a pet can mitigate heart problems because it reduces anxiety – though a poorly behaved pet could have the opposite effect.

The most common animals used for pet therapy are dogs, cats, horses and dolphins.

Pet therapy is a simple treatment because all it requires is a charming and clean animal. The
Mayo Clinic has more than a dozen dogs which they use to help people relax while they are receiving cancer treatment, children in long-term care and veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Mayo is a nice place to be if you are sick, but you can feel the sadness. But, when the dogs come in, you can see the patients smile. Their spirits lift up,” said Juan Pablo Moyano, in an interview with the Florida Times-Union.

These benefits are not limited to reducing stress and blood pressure. Recent work shows that interacting with pets can help autistic children improve their social skills. A 2003 study showed that autistic children were more likely to interact with their peers when they were playing with a guinea pig than when they were playing with toys.

“The ability of an animal to bring out a smile or get a child talking was a huge finding,” said the study’s author, Marguerite O’Haire, in an interview with the Huffington Post. Adding that the children were more than 50 percent more likely to smile while interacting with the animal.

girl and cat

The underlying cause of these benefits is the fact that interacting with pets causes an increase in oxytocin production. Oxytocin, also known as the “bonding hormone,” has been shown to increase trust and reduce fear – which can have enormous value for someone who has gone through a traumatic event. Veterans are commonly treated with pet therapy, especially those with PTSD.

Therapy goes to the dogs

Pet therapy is a simple treatment that can be quite beneficial for people dealing with a wide range of problems. While it cannot replace traditional medicine by itself, it can provide a significant physical and emotional boost.

Pet therapy doesn’t have to be a formal event either. Many individuals find that caring for a pet of their own can bring an increased sense of wellness to their lives. Animals make us smile, provide companionship and share our lives. It follows naturally that they’d be an important piece of our healthcare system as well.

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