Harnessing the Healing Power of Pets

Caring for an animal is a big responsibility, but research shows people may get far more in return.

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Updated on October 18, 2022.

Roughly 70 percent of American homes have a pet. That’s nearly 77 million dogs and more than 58 million cats—not to mention fish, birds, hamsters, and other animals. Humans are inherently social, and pets make good company. But research shows that only 17 percent of owners view their pet as merely a companion, while about 80 percent say their pets are part of the family.

To be sure, the bonds between animals and their “hoomans” are strong. And while it may seem that people provide a lot for their pets—shelter, food and water, treats, walks, and more—studies suggest that animals may provide far more in return.

Pets offer something rare and powerful: unconditional love. Their companionship isn’t to be underestimated, particularly among those who are isolated. Studies show that animals can ease loneliness, improve mood, and help people feel more socially supported.

When people pet their dogs, for example, levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, increase. This can promote a greater sense of well-being. Low oxytocin levels, on the other hand, have been linked to symptoms of depression.  

But the health benefits don’t end there.

Researchers investigating the effects that pets have on human health found that interacting with animals helps lower blood pressure and reduce levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. This effect could have a profound impact on long-term health. Over time, high cortisol levels can contribute to a wide range of health issues, including anxiety, depression, digestive issues, heart disease, trouble sleeping, memory problems, muscle aches, and weight gain.

The unconditional acceptance of animals has also been shown to improve the social functioning of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Researchers found that engaging with dogs once a week for 30 minutes help these kids share and cooperate more with their peers. Another study found that playing with guinea pigs helped children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) feel less anxious and socialize more with other kids.

Even the routine maintenance of caring for pets may translate to health benefits for people. In one 2015 study published in Diabetes Education, researchers found that feeding fish and checking their water levels helped teens with type 1 diabetes better manage their own condition. The daily maintenance of caring for the fish was paired with their own blood sugar monitoring, which helped reinforce this healthy habit.

When pets are a key part of therapy

The mental and physical health benefits of animals have also been harnessed to help those who are hospitalized. 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.”

Research has shown that pet therapy could help ease pain, anxiety, tension, and fatigue and may 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 healthcare provider (HCP) if it’s offered at your medical center or nursing home and if you would be a good candidate.

Article sources open article sources

American Veterinary Medical Association. U.S. pet ownership statistics. Accessed Oct 18, 2022.
The Humane Society of the United States. Pets by the numbers. Accessed Oct 18, 2022.
U.S. National Institutes of Health. The Power of Pets. Feb 2018.
The Ohio State University. Health Benefits of Pet Ownership. Accessed Oct 18, 2022.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Friend Who Keeps You Young. Accessed Oct 18, 2022.
Harvard Medical School. Oxytocin: The love hormone. Jul 20, 2021.
Mayo Clinic. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Jul 8, 2021.
Maranda L, Lau M, Stewart SM, Gupta OT. A novel behavioral intervention in adolescents with type 1 diabetes mellitus improves glycemic control: preliminary results from a pilot randomized control trial. Diabetes Educ. 2015 Apr;41(2):224-30.
VCA Animal Hospitals. Therapy Pets. Accessed Oct 18, 2022.
Coakley AB, Mahoney EK. Creating a therapeutic and healing environment with a pet therapy program. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2009 Aug;15(3):141-6.
Richeson NE. Effects of animal-assisted therapy on agitated behaviors and social interactions of older adults with dementia. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias®. 2003;18(6):353-358.
Katherine Hinic, Mildred Ortu Kowalski, Kristin Holtzman, et al. The Effect of a Pet Therapy and Comparison Intervention on Anxiety in Hospitalized Children, Journal of Pediatric Nursing, Volume 46, 2019, Pages 55-61.

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