For over a decade, all over the globe, researchers have been discovering and documenting the amazing healing abilities of pets. You might say that humans can teach a pet to “heel”, but pets can teach humans to “heal”.
The experts say the reasons for this are simple… pets reduce our anxiety level, which directly affects the blood pressure and heart rate, putting us in a more relaxed state. When we are caring for a pet and giving and receiving affection, we are satisfying the most basic human need for touch and connection.
There are a number of studies that show pet owners enjoy better general health than people without a pet. The kind of pet doesn’t seem to matter. Whether it’s watching fish swim placidly in an aquarium, or feeding the pet iguana, a pet takes us outside of ourselves and outside the stresses of daily life. Pets can act as healers in almost every area of our lives. Programs using pets in a healing capacity include fields such as mental health, learning disabilities, speech and language therapy, emotional illness, heart disease, physical therapy, hospitalized children, institutionalized elderly, prison rehab programs, companion animals for physically challenged, as well as patients suffering from seizures, and more.
The Journal of The American Medical Association published a study showing that children who grow up in a home with pets lessen their risk of developing common allergies. Children in homes with cats and dogs had a decreased chance of developing asthma, due to the lack of allergic response, which can cause irritated airways. Another study done at the University of Pennsylvania on a group of extremely ill heart patients found that patients who were pet owners had a higher survival rate than those who did not. The study lasted one year, and the results showed that the death rate for patients who did not have a pet was 28%, whereas pet owners had a death rate of less than 6%.
One of the earliest programs to recognize the profound healing abilities of pets on people came about in 1981, when Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun from Washington State, started the first prison program for training dogs. Animals that were on “death row” were given a new chance at a normal life by this program which trained and socialized them so that they could be adopted into loving homes. Prison authorities began to notice significant changes in the inmates as well. The program had a very positive effect on inmates by reducing the stress of loneliness and isolation. In many cases, inmate trainers experienced what it meant to be accepted and unconditionally loved for the first time in their lives. Since then several prisons nationwide have established animal training and rehabilitation programs. The presence of the animals and the involvement on the part of the inmate in the training process gives a sense of purpose and reduces depression and aggression among prisoners.
Any pet can perform this healing function just by giving and receiving trust and affection; however, there are animals that are specifically trained to act as healing pets. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) or Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) is the formal inclusion of an animal in a patient’s treatment plan. These animals are registered with one of the national organizations that operate in this capacity, and are given the title of “therapy animal”. Therapy dogs or therapy animals do not act as specialized service animals who assist the physically challenged, or the hearing or sight-impaired. They do not have access to places such as public restaurants, buildings, or transportation. Animals younger than one year of age are not accepted into the program to avoid exposing them to training that may cause a high level of stress. The animals work with a trainer and must be capable of remaining calm and comfortable during a variety of activities and social situations. Safety of the pet is the organization’s first priority, and great care is taken to ensure that the pet is enjoying its role in a therapy capacity.
Special Programs That Use the Healing Ability of Therapy Animals
Children experiencing a Divorce
A study by the Institute for Psychology at the University of Bonn, Germany showed that owning a dog created a significant increase in a child’s ability to deal with the emotional trauma of divorce. In fact, the positive impact of a pet’s presence was shown to extend to childhood traumatic events in general.
A relationship with a pet offers:
- A companion that gives unconditional love and attention
- Someone the child can talk to about fears and anger
- The distraction of joyful play
- A retreat from conflict and loneliness
- A living thing to care for and give love to that is a constant in the child’s life
Nursing Home Studies
Many nursing homes and healthcare facilities are instituting programs utilizing therapy pets. These animals have been shown to exert a profoundly positive impact on the mental and physical well being of the elderly in these institutions. Several such facilities have developed programs of “dogs in residence”, while others have programs where pets are frequent and regular visitors, allowing for strong bonds of friendship and love to develop between animal and human.
Studies have shown that elderly residents who interacted regularly with a pet require fewer doctor visits and less medication; they tend to socialize more and have better appetites than those who do not. Although not a disease, the leading cause of declining health in the elderly is loneliness. The presence of a pet that fulfills the need for love, attachment and nurturing seem to have a profound impact, not only on the patient but on the family as well. At some facilities, staff reported the number of visits by family members increased, as the grandchildren wanted to visit with grandma to spend some time with “Rover” or “Fluffy”.
Animal-assisted therapy has been used with amazing results in patients with schizophrenia, severe depression, Alzheimer’s, ADHA, autism, and other psychiatric disorders.
Aaron Katcher, M.D., a psychiatrist and emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, is a partner in Biophilia-In-Action, a consulting group that provides animal-assisted therapy. Dr. Katcher’s work on the impact of pets on mental illness recommends, “Psychiatrists should explore whether patients have pets and how they relate to them. And for those who don’t have a pet, psychiatrists should evaluate if the patient, especially one who is socially withdrawn, would be amenable to obtaining one.”
Dr. Katcher notes that patients with mental illness often have an easier time communicating with the therapist in the presence of an animal, such as a psychiatric service dog. The dogs also help patients by reducing the severity of panic attacks. Children with severe ADHD showed improved attention; patients with autism showed improved socialization skills, and patients with Alzheimer’s exhibited improved attention and less aggression and anger.
In short, our lives are greatly enhanced by the presence of animals, with the unconditional love and companionship that they give us so generously. Healers come in all shapes and sizes — some come with fur and feathers. Pets can be healers of the mind, body, and soul, and they do it simply by being themselves. Pets seem to have the ability to sense when we are sad or in pain and seek to comfort us by simply being there for us. They remind us of the power of unconditional love to heal and change our lives in wonderful and meaningful ways.