Today’s deep dive on one of the many kinds of nature therapy is a personal favorite of mine: pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy. Those of us who have had the pleasure of caring for a pet—whether it be a dog, cat, bird or rabbit—already know implicitly the joys a pet can bring into a person’s life. How many times has being greeted at the door by a happy dog or sitting down to cuddle a purring cat made the stress of a long day suddenly melt away?
But our mission today is to discover the science and research behind why we feel this way, as well as learn a bit more about the ways health practitioners, therapists and others are incorporating pet or animal-assisted therapy into their prescriptions and plans for their patients.
So what is pet therapy? Simply put, it’s a fast growing field that uses animals—most famously dogs, but often other animals as well—to help patients deal with various health problems both mental and physical. Sometimes it involves caring for animals—feeding, grooming, or bathing them—and other times it simply involves interacting with them.
According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression in patients suffering from a wide range of health issues, including kids at the dentist, cancer patients, veterans with PTSD, prisoners, those in long-term care facilities, and people with cardiovascular diseases, dementia or anxiety.
The history of animal-assisted therapy
Doctors and therapists have been intuitively using animals to help their patients for centuries. The Ancient Greeks used animals, specifically horses, to lift the spirits of the severely ill, and in medieval Belgium, healing humans and animals were actually rehabilitated alongside one another for their mutual benefit.
Some well-known names used pet therapy long before there was research to support it. In the 1800s, none other than Florence Nightingale found that the presence of small pets reduced anxiety and stress in her psychiatric patients, both adults and children. And Sigmund Freud was known to use his own dog in his therapy practice to calm younger patients with anxiety, as well as using him as a litmus test to see how stressed his patients were.
The first formal research began in the 1960s with Dr. Boris Levinson, when he noticed that the patients in his children’s therapy sessions were notably more relaxed and talkative when his dog, Jingles, was present. Over time he found that Jingles was especially helpful with children who had difficulty opening up, and stated that, “A pet is an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world.”
Levinson’s work was met by skepticism and rejection by his peers, but he soldiered on anyway and in 1969 wrote Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy, making him the father of animal-assisted therapy as we know it. Only once Freud’s findings were translated and published did his work start to gain any traction, showing the difficulty the field often has in being taken seriously by those who consider it soft science.
Good for both body and mind
Like most kinds of nature therapy, pet therapy can have huge effects on both physical and mental health.
On the mental health side, research shows that even just the physical act of petting an animal releases an automatic relaxation response, releasing mood-elevating hormones like serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. Pet therapy also reduces anxiety, promotes relaxation, and provides comfort. For older patients, pet therapy reduces loneliness and increases mental stimulation or those struggling with the solitude of long-term care, and it can actually help patients with Alzheimer’s (or even just those with head injuries) recall memories and sequence temporal events. When it comes to therapy, involving animals in the process can help break the ice for patients feeling resistant about the therapy process and act as a catalyst to opening them up.
And on the physical health front, pet therapy lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health and can reduce overall physical pain, as well as reducing the amount of medication some people need by as much as 50%. Pet therapy can be especially transformative for children with autism; research shows that children with autism often bond deeply with animals and can relate to them better than humans at times. In therapy sessions that incorporated animals, children with autism used language better and interacted more socially than sessions without animals. And pet therapy has even been used in prisons to help reduce violence, antisocial behaviors and drug addiction in prisoners.
Clearly pet therapy can be used on all types of folks dealing with all types of issues—mental, physical and behavioral.
What does the research say?
While the bond between humans and animals is ancient, the research proving the medical benefits of said bond is more recent. New research on the subject has helped bolster the growth of pet therapy programs, though more research is needed to create a more robust data set. While the data can often be complicated and hard to isolate, and pet therapy remains undervalued by some medical professionals, there remains a clear trend that interacting with pets—and more specifically, pet ownership—has a huge effect on a person’s health.
A 2015 article studying pet ownership and physical health found numerous correlations between the two, including cardiovascular improvements and decreased loneliness, that suggested interacting with a pet was causally related to positive health outcomes. They reported that “the value of pet ownership and animal-assisted therapy…is starting to be realized” but called for more investigations to examine the underlying mechanism of that relationship, especially the role of oxytocin.
A 2011 study looked more specifically at the relationship between pet ownership and cardiovascular risk reduction and found that, despite some conflicting data, dog owners were overall less sedentary and had lower blood pressure, plasma cholesterol and triglycerides, than non-pet owners, as well as having improved survival rates following myocardial infarction. The research offered a unifying hypothesis: “improved mood and emotional state [is linked to] to decreased central and regional autonomic activity, improved endothelial function and, thus, lower blood pressure and reduced cardiac arrhythmias,” concluding overall that ownership of domestic pets—especially dogs—was firmly associated with positive health benefits.
And a 2005 article from the American Heart Association showed that just 12 minutes visiting with a dog was enough to help heart and lung function by “lowering pressures, diminishing release of harmful hormones and decreasing anxiety among hospitalized heart failure patients.” They reported that researchers studied three groups—patients visited by a volunteer and a dog, patients visited by just a volunteer, and patients visited by no one. The anxiety scores of those with no visitors stayed the same; those with just a human volunteer saw a 10% decrease in anxiety; but the dog-volunteer group saw a substantial 24% reduction in their anxiety scores.
Spend your golden years with a golden retriever
A huge amount of the research available focuses specifically on the huge benefits pet ownership and animal-assisted therapy has for our senior population.
One of the earliest studies on the subject from back in 1999 studied the effect of companion animals on the physical and psychological health of older people over the course of a year, comparing them to a control group without them. They found that the pet owners were more physically active than non-pet owners, and that the ADL (meaning “activities of daily life”) level of respondents without pets deteriorated more on average than those who owned them, even after adjusting for other variables. They also found that “pet ownership significantly modified the relationship between social support and the change in psychological well-being.”
An article from 2013 looked at the relationship between dog ownership, functional ability, and walking in community-dwelling older adults. They found that dog owners/walkers reported significantly higher physical activity than non-dog owners/walkers. Those not walking their dogs reported lower intention and perceived behavioral control, as well as a less positive attitude than dog owner/dog walkers. The study concluded that “dog owner/dog walkers were significantly different than the non-dog walker groups in nearly every study variable,” and that the responsibility of walking a pet provided a purposeful activities that motivates older dog walkers to keep active.
And another article from 2013 did a matched case-control trial on the relationship between animal-assisted therapy and agitation and depression in nursing home residents with dementia. It found that while the group which received animal therapy interventions did not see any change in the frequency or severity of their symptoms, the group without it actually saw a significant increase in their own symptoms over the course of the 10 week study, suggesting that while animal therapy may not be able to reverse the effects of dementia, it can play a role in delaying its progression.
Animal therapy in action
It’s not just about cuddling up with your dog at home: so many different programs are now utilizing the power of animal-assisted therapy to help heal.
Equine therapy is probably the most popular after canine therapy, and knowing how to ride a horse isn’t even necessary; patients groom, feed, halter, and lead a horse to get all the benefits animal therapy can provide. Different ranches around the country are partnering with psychotherapists to bring structure and sound medical advice to the experience of interacting with horses. Horses, like humans, are herd animals who can communicate non-verbally, which makes them a perfect companion for humans looking to heal.
Another fast-growing field that utilizes animal therapy is in the sphere of PTSD, particularly for veterans. Service and therapy dogs are a huge help to veterans dealing with PTSD, and there are also fantastic programs like Pets for Vets and Pets for Patriots specifically connecting veterans with rescued animals so that they can help heal one another. A long list of support organizations for vets looking for some animal therapy can be found here.
And it’s not just four-legged animals; there are service birds as well! One article mentions a man with bipolar disorder whose bird could sense when he was about to have an episode and tell him to calm down. Another article details how bringing veterans and abused parrots together provides healing opportunities for them both; as one vet says, “The birds have taught me patience. Makes me feel whole again. Like I’m in peace with the universe. And the bird liked it too.”
There’s so much evidence that pet therapy in its myriad forms can do so much good for those in pain—humans and animals alike. So the next time you cuddle up with your pet, remember that it’s not just good for the soul: it’s medicine for your body and mind as well.