Can pets help keep you healthy?

Woman with pet dog

Anyone who’s ever felt a deep connection with a pet and experienced their unconditional love, acceptance and friendship knows that an animal is capable of helping you feel better.

Nursing homes, hospitals, addiction recovery centers, mental health facilities and hospices are now aware that pets help heal. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), when animals like dogs, cats, rabbits and horses are used to visit with patients and/or take an active role in helping them recover from illness, is cropping up where you once least expected to see it.

Animal-assisted therapy is an intentional healing modality used to help patients through an interaction between patients and trained animals that are typically accompanied by human owners or handlers.1

Research suggests that this intervention may contribute to optimal healing environments through comforting contact, lowered stress response, bonding between human and animal, and social support.2

The goal is to improve patients’ mental, physical, social and emotional health through animals. The most common therapy is done with dogs, but other animals such as horses (equine-assisted therapy) as well as cats, rabbits and llamas are also used.

Why have therapy with animals?

More than simply having patients spend time with an animal, animal-assisted therapy may also involve specific therapeutic goals and strategies. Getting patients to walk, brush, pet and care for an animal not only helps the patient feel better mentally but assists with physical health goals as well. Benefits include improving motor skills, balance, and focus, self-esteem, reducing anxiety and depression, blood pressure and risk of heart attack and stroke, reduced need for medications and improving social skills.3

“Animals have the ability to make people feel less lonely and bring out positive social characteristics,” says Nancy Brook, RN, MSN, a certified nurse practitioner at Stanford Hospital and Clinics in Stanford, Calif. “Many hospitals and nursing homes use AAT programs to help reduce feelings of depression and isolation in their patients as well as stimulating mental activity through interaction with the animal. Because animals are non-judgmental, those with deformities or disfigurements may find it easier to socialize with them versus with other individuals,” says Brook.4

Nancy Just, Ph.D., a psychologist and founder and owner of Advanced Psychological Specialists in Ridgewood, N.J., treats patients for anxiety and chronic pain. For fourteen years her co-therapist, Rozzi, a Jack Russell terrier, sat in on her sessions and offered unconditional love and support to her patients.

To sit across from a woman therapist as an adolescent boy and talk about embarrassing issues regarding thoughts, anxiety or depressive feelings is very hard. “So to have a dog who sits in your lap and you can pet and is licking you causes just the exact right amount of distraction that makes it easier to talk. You don’t have to worry about where to put your eyes when you are telling the therapist something very embarrassing,” says Just.5

One of Dr. Just’s favorite stories is of treating a teenage boy with alopecia, a disorder in which you lose all your body hair. “Rozzi would sit on the back of the chair like a parrot during the entire session and lick the young man’s head. It was hilarious, and we couldn’t not laugh about it. It made him so happy and it made therapy such a positive experience for him to be able to come in and get that kind of attention for something that was usually embarrassing.”6

There is a strong bond between animals and people. Animals are accepting, non-threatening and non-judgmental, making it easier for people to open up. People with a variety of conditions can benefit from animal-assisted therapy, including those with autism, addiction, cancer, heart disease, dementia, psychiatric disorders and more.7

Horses, bunnies and dogs, oh my!

Kelly Meister-Yetter of Toledo Ohio, underwent equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), and found it to be exciting and challenging. “I did not have any previous experience with horses, so I really learned a lot about communicating more effectively. And, the more I learned, the better I felt about myself.”

Addiction recovery centers like Origins with properties in Texas and New York, offer EAP, where participants learn about themselves and others while doing exercises with horses and then process the feelings, behaviors and patterns that come up during the horse interaction.

Likewise, NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan has bunnies on staff. Clovis and Nutmeg, 4 and-a-half year old rabbits that live on the 13th floor provide patients, both kids and adults, with animal-assisted therapy and a helping hand to healing.

According to a 2007 UCLA study, adult patients who spent 12 minutes with a therapy dog had decreased anxiety and stress levels and improved cardiopulmonary pressures when compared to those who didn’t engage with an animal.8

Who let the dogs out?

Trish McMillan Loehr brings her two certified pet therapy dogs to the Asheville, N.C., Veteran’s Hospice weekly. Duncan, an 8-year old Doberman, and Kenya, a 13-year old Mastiff mix enjoy the interaction as much as the patients. “Often the people who appreciate it the most are those that have dogs at home,” says Loehr.9

Loehr arrives with one dog weekly and asks patients if they’d like a visit. “The dog is really facilitating an interaction with the person. I go in and sit down if invited and just talk about whatever they want to talk about,” she says. Some chat up a storm about dogs they’ve had in the past or their families, others just want to quietly pet the dog. “At a daycare facility one woman was catatonic and wasn’t responding to anything and the only response she had was when my dog came in, she smiled and petted her,” Loehr says. The staff was amazed.10

Dr. Just lost Rozzi this year at age 17-and-a-half. She feels he was a secret weapon in her arsenal of psychology tools, one that her patients sorely miss. Not only is petting an animal soothing and healing, lowering blood pressure and improving mental outlook, but many elderly patients and chronic pain patients no longer have much pleasurable touch so having a warm tongue or soft fur rub up against heals in a way that medical science still has a lot to learn about.11

1,2,3 American Journal of Critical Care, 2014 study review, http://ajcc.aacnjournals.org/content/17/4/373.short

4,7 Email interview, Nancy Brook, NP, 12/1/14

5,6,11 Phone interview, Nancy Just, PHD, 12/2/14

8 UCLA Health http://www.uclahealth.org/site.cfm?id=2700

9,10 Trish McMillan Loehr phone interview, 12/1/14

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