Pet Therapy: Learn how it can be beneficial

Dogs, cats, horses guinea pigs—our furry friends are more than just fuzzy companions. Pets of all breeds can be used in pet therapy. Pets trained for pet therapy help us recover from physical and psychological illness. Keep reading for more about how pet therapy heals the body and mind.

Pet Therapy: Learn how it can be beneficial
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What Is Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy, also called animal assisted therapy, is the use of trained animals to promote healing from a mental or physical illness. There are two main types of animal therapies. In traditional pet therapy, an owner brings their animal to the location of the patient. The most common locations are hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. Contrarily, social workers, psychologists, and other professionals include pets in treatment therapies during animal assisted therapy.

The implementation of pet therapy originates to the early 1800s. However, the first official program for animal therapy was in the 1980s.  Although any trained animal may practice pet therapy, canines (i.e. dogs) and equines (i.e. horses) are animals known to be of great benefit in helping the recovery process for acute and chronic illnesses.

What Pet Therapy Is NOT

A service animal differs from a pet therapy animal. Service animals are animals trained for disabled patients to assist with specific tasks. Service animals provide assistance by guiding owners that are blind, carrying objects, and warning of medical events like seizures, allergic reactions, or abnormal blood sugar levels. By law, service animals are permitted to be with their owners at all times and in all establishments. Pet therapy animals are not necessarily trained for specific tasks. Their role is to offer comfort and emotional support.

Who Receives Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy is for people of all ages. Being that the goal of pet therapy is to help heal illness, any population with a physical, mental, or social illness can receive pet therapy. It is frequently a recommended treatment for hospitalized patients with chronic heart failure, veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), children undergoing medical procedures, patients with cancer or who reside in healthcare facilities, and people with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia.

Pet therapy is not for patients who dislike animals or have weakened immune system. Pet therapy is also not recommended for patients who are rough when handling animals. For example, a small child squeezing or dropping a pet is potentially dangerous. While therapy animals are trained, even trained animals may lash out if hurt accidentally. This is why it is important parents, medical professionals, and the pet’s owner supervise pet therapy sessions.

Choosing the Right Pet for Pet Therapy

Any breed of animals can be trained for pet therapy, but ideal pet therapy animals must display a certain temperament. These animals are calm, not easily startled, and are relatively quiet. Animals that are loud, such as dogs that barks loudly, are unlikely to be successful as a pet therapy animal.  Pet therapy animals should also be animals that can be removed from the presence of phobic patients with little effort and those that do not commonly provoke fear. A snake or reptile frighten many patients.

Pet Therapy Promotes Heart Health

Pet therapy has profound effects on heart health. The first reason being that having a pet encourages healthy movement. Animals used in pet therapy, like dogs, are active. They motivate their owners and pet therapy patients to walk and play when they would not otherwise do so. Additionally, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which block the heart’s blood flow and lead to cardiac arrest if present in high levels, are lower in those who are frequently exposed to animals.

Pet Therapy Stabilizes Mood and Improves Relationships

Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus in the brain. It is connected to human behavior. In females, oxytocin is related to childbirth and breast feeding. In males, oxytocin allows the body to move sperm. Studies show that oxytocin is essential for psychological stability (Neumanm, 2007). The body naturally releases oxytocin when triggered by human bonding. Later studies proved that the hormone is 300 percent higher in those with pets. Simply making eye contact with a cat or dog can cause a release in oxytocin, and as a result, it reduces stress levels. With a decrease in stress, we are not as susceptible to depression, anxiety, and mood swings. Since oxytocin is also called the “love hormone,” people with higher levels have trustworthy, productive relationships. Our sense of self-worth boosts our mood when content and happy in our interactions.

Pet Therapy Helps Manage Mental Illness

Pet therapy is an integral component to mental illness management. Depression, anxiety disorders, and addiction are three mental illnesses inn which pet therapy is of great benefit. Allison White, a psychologist affiliated with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, recounts her experience with pet therapy. She explains how incorporating her dogs into visits with her patients changes the direction of the entire therapy session. After a patient divulged the details of her week to the therapy dog, Allison claims in The Power of Pet Therapy (2016), “my client was overcome with a sense of calm in a way I could not have accomplished by merely talking with her.” The pets in pet therapy are a confidant patients can talk to without fear of judgment. If patients are permitted to help care for the animal, pet therapy provides a purpose. Those with mental illness often feel like their life lacks meaning. By caring for an animal, per therapy gives these patients a goal.

Pet Therapy for Dementia

Cognitive functioning is how we think. It includes the mental functions of communication and language, attention, memory, social skills, and more. In diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, cognitive functioning progressively declines as brain cells are destroyed.

Pet therapy is commonly used in dementia patients of all ages, but especially the elderly. Considering their social skills are negatively affected, they are more interactive with pet therapy. They can practice social skills that they cannot on people. The companionship of a pet therapy animal counteracts the negative consequences of the disease such as isolation, loneliness, confusion, and depression.  

Published studies from 2002 confirmed that after only four weeks with a resident dog, elderly dementia patients in a medical care facility presented with fewer behavioral problems and an increase in social skills.

Childhood Learning from Pet Therapy

Children participating in pet therapy learn a range of valuable skills. In general, pet therapy stimulates the minds of children through play. It offers them a companion to quell their nerves if suffering from separation anxiety from their parents. Animals are known to calm children with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Animals are particularly helpful for children with autism and other learning disorders. These conditions effect the learning of appropriate social behavior. Through pet therapy, they interpret the cues of animals, so they know how to interact with people. It also shows them how to respond to emotional connections.

Pet Therapy
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Pet Therapy Relieves Pain

Chronic pain is ongoing pain lasting for three months or more. Persistent pain, depending on the cause, is complex and difficult to treat. While medications and physical therapy are traditional treatments, pet therapy can be an asset to chronic pain management.

Patients in pet therapy participate in activities that contribute to daily maintenance of caring for a pet—brushing their fur, feeding them, taking them on a walk, and playing fetch. In one study, children with a cancer diagnosis had 30 minutes of pet therapy per day. When rating their pain on the FACES pain scale, their pain levels were less than before the therapy.   

Researchers estimate that 1 in 4 adults with chronic pain benefit from pet therapy too. Pets trigger the body to release oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine. These neurotransmitters ad hormones are the body’s natural pain relievers.

Pet Therapy in Hospitals

Up to 90 percent of both pediatric and adult hospitals have pet therapy programs. Most hospital-based therapy programs use dogs, as other animals like cats, reptiles, or rabbits are difficult to train. For safety reasons, hospital pet therapy programs take precautions to avoid the spread of infection. Owners and animals sanitize after patient contact. Some owners also lay towels or blankets on the patient’s hospital bed to abstain from coming in direct contact and carrying germs patient to patient. Dogs are not permitted to visit patients in isolation. Despite the protocols, benefits of pet therapy outweigh the risks.

Precautions to Take During Pet Therapy

As with any therapy, pet therapy does come with risks. Much like in hospitals, the primary risk of pet therapy is the spread of infection. Some disease can spread from animals to humans. Pet therapy animals should be healthy and fully vaccinated. The animal needs to be properly trained. An animal that bites are scratches a patient, even accidentally, presents the potential for emotional trauma and health complications.

Patients involved in pet therapy may have weakened immune systems and it is imperative to ensure they remain safe and free from germs. Patients on chemotherapy regimens may have to wait for pet therapy until their immune levels rise. Wash hands before and after contact with pet therapy animals. The animal should be bathed often.

Professionals should advise on the best pet therapy animal for the patient. For example, a patient with cat allergies should avoid exposure to cats for their pet therapy.  A patient with a fear of large dogs should not use large dog breeds or horses.

References

Silva N., Osório F. Impact of an animal-assisted therapy programme on physiological and psychosocial variables of paediatric oncology patientsPLoS One. 2018;13(4):e0194731. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0194731

White, Allison. (2016). The Power of Pet Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/November-2016/The-Power-of-Pet-Therapy#:~:text=Pets%20also%20reduce%20symptoms%20of,which%20leads%20to%20healthier%20lifestyles.