If you are or have ever been a pet owner, you will know the feelings of love and well-being that come with pet ownership. There is now also a growing body of research to show that pet therapy can be effective for promoting well-being, reduced stress and reduced loneliness in patients who are hospitalized.
What is pet therapy? It is a catch-all term for any animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. This is a growing field which uses animals to assist with the recovery of or ability to cope with health issues among patients. These include virtually any type of ailment but pet therapy is commonly used with heart patients, mental health patients and cancer patients.
The main difference between animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities is that therapy will be used to treat specific conditions or ailments, whereas animal-assisted activities tend to be more general purpose, such as to provide comfort for nursing home residents.
Pet therapy has been shown to significantly reduce levels of anxiety, pain, depression and fatigue in hospital patients with a range of conditions. It has also been shown to be helpful for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Significantly, pet therapy has proven to not only result in improvements in hospital patients, but it has been reported to be helpful for their families also. Many family members report that they too have felt better with lower stress levels following pet visits.
As an example of how pet therapy may work, consider the case of a young spinal patient. A therapy dog was used with this young patient to help her re-learn how to walk. Outside of walking, the patient gave the dog a ‘check up’ each day which helped to keep her moving. As she progressed, the patient was able to take the dog for walks every day with the aid of a walker.
This is just one of many examples of pet therapy being beneficial for hospital patients. Researchers from the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri have found that the interaction between patients and animals can increase peoples’ levels of the hormone oxytocin. The significance of this is that oxytocin has some powerful effects on the body, such as readiness to heal and feelings of well-being. It can promote a healthier environment within the human body where it is ready to grow new, healthy cells.
Animals are also known to make patients feel more at ease, a fact that has had significant results for the treatment of mental health patients.
While some people may express concern at the hygiene factors involved with having pets in hospitals, the hospitals who do utilize pet therapy have strict guidelines in place in terms of animal hygiene and cleanliness. The general consensus among facilities which do employ pet therapy is that the benefits tend to far outweigh the risks.