Harnessing the Healing Power of Pets

A visit from a well-trained, furry friend may support people managing long hospital stays or chronic health issues.

Medically reviewed in July 2021

People who are facing difficult or lengthy hospital stays may feel like home is a million miles away. The fluorescent lights, chilly air and beeping monitors can make it difficult to rest or feel comfortable. But a visit from a friendly therapy dog or cat—and sometimes a rabbit, guinea pig, horse or fish—could help lift the spirits of weary patients and even provide some health benefits. 

Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), gives patients a break from the stressful circumstances that brought them to the hospital. 

“The escape from the medical cloud is the biggest benefit of pet therapy for the patient,” says Maulikkumar Patel, MD, an internist practicing in Savannah, Georgia, affiliated with Memorial Health University Medical Center. “In the hospital setting, the whole day is about medical care. Having pets come in completely changes the focus of what’s going on.”

Research also suggests that spending time with therapy animals can help ease hospitalized patients’ pain, fatigue and symptoms of depression. 

What pet therapy involves
Unlike a service animal—trained to perform specific, helpful jobs such as retrieving medication or offering guidance around obstacles—pet therapy animals are not task-oriented. They are trained to simply be social, which in many cases, may be just what patients in the hospital need: a friend.

Here’s how it works: Someone who works with a pet therapy program will visit a medical center with one or more animals, ranging from big to small, who are specially trained to approach and befriend strangers. The trainer and animals will go from room to room, giving patients an opportunity to interact and play with the calm yet gregarious pets, Dr. Patel explains.  

The effect of these brief visits can be huge when it comes to patients’ moods. “Patients get very happy,” Patel says. They forget—even for just a short time— about the elephant in the room, such as a bad infection or planned surgery, he explains. Instead, patients reminisce about time spent with pets in the past and their emotions generally lift.

How pet therapy helps 
Pet therapy may be helpful for a wide range of patients, including veterans with PTSD, people receiving cancer treatment and those with dementia, anxiety or heart disease. It can be offered in a hospital setting, as well as in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. 

“Patients who interact with pets tend to feel less lonely,” Patel says. “Their depressive symptoms improve, and maybe their stress is reduced.” 

If you’re a pet owner, the notion that a furry friend could offer some support to those who are hospitalized or managing chronic health issues may come as no surprise. Anyone who’s cuddled a cat after a hard day or walked a dog rather than wallowing in the couch, may have insight into the mood-changing power of pets. But the benefits of animal-assisted therapy are actually bolstered by some scientific evidence.

Research has shown that pet therapy could help ease pain, anxiety, tension and fatigue and possibly improve blood pressure among patients with chronic health issues, including heart failure and age-related conditions. There is also some evidence to suggest that therapy animals could ease agitation among those with dementia while encouraging their social interaction.

Moreover, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing found that a visit from a therapy dog reduced anxiety among hospitalized children more dramatically than doing puzzles with another person.  

The downstream effects of pet therapy, including a greater willingness among patients to actively participate in their treatment plans, are important to consider as well, notes Patel.  

How to access pet therapy
Many of those who might benefit from pet therapy may not even realize that it’s available to them, according to Patel. “A lot of patients and physicians aren’t aware that it’s an option,” he says.

While animal-assisted therapy is helpful for almost any patient, there are some who probably ought to steer clear, including those who are allergic to the animals or afraid of them. For these people, the interaction with pets may do more harm than good.

Ensuring the health and safety of patients is a priority. To that end, programs typically require training for both the animal and the animal's handler before visits to the hospital are allowed. Animals must be obedient, healthy and up to date on their immunizations. Proper hygiene, including the use of hand sanitizer before and after interactions with animals, is also essential. In some cases, clean sheets are also placed over patients' beds during the animal visits and removed once the session ends.

If you’re interested in pursuing pet therapy, ask your doctor if it’s offered at your medical center or nursing home and if you’re be a good candidate. You can also check the websites of specific facilities for more information about the programs they offer. 

Medically reviewed in July 2019

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