Expert Health Articles

Pet Therapy

Heather SchalkHeather Schalk, Volunteer Coordinator

Blanchard Valley Hospital Auxiliary

Many of us consider our pets as family members. They are usually loving creatures who are great at lending an ear and keeping us company. But pets offer more benefits to our health than simply being good companions. Pets that are trained to be therapy animals have been scientifically proven to provide physical and mental benefits to owners and patients.

Pet therapy is the umbrella term used to describe animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. Animal-assisted therapy helps people cope with both mental and physical health problems, such as anxiety or cancer. Animal-assisted activities are more general, such as when animals comfort patients in a hospital as they receive treatment. While most people immediately think of dogs as the animals involved in pet therapy, almost any kind of tame, friendly animal can be used for pet therapy.

Petting or playing with animals can reduce stress levels and increase happiness in patients. This is because these actions cause endorphins to release in patients’ brains, helping them relax. As a result, relaxation can contribute to physical health benefits, such as lower blood pressure, decreased pain and increased cardiovascular health. For patients in need of physical therapy, the act of throwing a toy or simply playing with a therapy animal can increase joint movement, improve motor skill functions and produce a faster recovery time. Additionally, the presence of a therapy animal during physical therapy has been proven to increase motivation in patients, helping them improve on physical tasks.

Patients may also receive mental health benefits from engaging with therapy animals. Pet therapy can reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation, encourage communication and socialization skills, and provide comfort during stressful times, such as during cancer treatment or after the loss of a loved one. Additionally, depression and anxiety levels usually decrease in patients who receive pet therapy. This is one reason therapy animal visits to college campuses have been increasing in popularity: the presence of therapy animals reduces student stress and anxiety and increases happiness. Pet therapy can be beneficial virtually anywhere including schools, hospitals and even the workplace.

Children are particularly receptive to pet therapy and may receive the greatest benefit. Simply having an animal in the room during a therapy session can make children more likely to open up and communicate with a therapist. Therapy animals help reduce stress and promote relaxation in children during doctor visits, making it easier for providers to examine or treat children. Additionally, children with speech or literacy impediments may increase their skills if a therapy animal is present during practice. 

While this treatment is great for children, pet therapy is beneficial for people of all ages. No matter what condition an individual is facing, engaging with a therapy animal can increase both mental and physical health. Ask your provider how to incorporate pet therapy into your life.