Pet therapy is a relatively new phenomenon, used to help those with physical as well as mental health problems. We investigate the health benefits.
Aside from being a companion, having a pet could help ease stress, control pain and improve mental health, according to a study published in BMC Psychiatry.1
Pets for stress
Humans rely on other living things for survival, so being in the presence of animals can have a calming effect.
The unconditional love we have for our pets brings us personal growth and reduced stress levels, through the chance to care for another creature.
What's more, studies using measures such as heart rate and skin temperature have shown that subjective feelings of stress are lessened following time spent with pets.
Pets for pain
To assess the effect pet therapy could have on patients suffering with orthopaedic problems, such as knee and hip surgery, researchers compared the effect of standard physiotherapy with pet therapy on 62 people as part of post-operative rehabilitation.
A 5-year-old curly-coated retriever, certified for dog therapy, visited each patient for 15 minutes post-surgery. The same dog was used for all the patients. Those given the pet therapy option were discharged just as quickly as those treated with standard physiotherapy.2
Pets for mental health
Whether it's through learning to ride a therapy horse or keeping a pet at home to care for, pet therapy has been proven to significantly improve emotional wellbeing and mental health.
Diverting someone's attention away from stress and towards one that provides pleasure has been shown, by a meta-analysis of 17 studies, to have a positive impact on those managing a mental health condition, especially in times of crisis.3
The analysis found animal-assisted therapy to be of help to people suffering with depression, schizophrenia or addiction. And one of the studies reported 230 participants with mental health problems found just one session of pet therapy helped to ease anxiety.
Pets for children
Spending time in hospital as a child can be tough, for both the children and their families. For this reason it is important that some semblance of normality is included in hospital life, and this can be achieved with both play and pet therapy.
Seeing animals not only boosts a child's mood at the time of the visit, but encourages them to anticipate the pet's arrival with excitement – therefore distracting them from illness and the symptoms that come with it. In this sense, pet therapy is a form of relief from the monotony of hospital life.
Pets for positive change
Having a pet encourages most of us to adopt a routine, and one habit it almost always instils is a daily walk or two.
Aiming for 10,000 steps a day is a lot easier if you have a pet that needs exercise. Not only that, getting about with your pet encourages your social side, with research showing that 40% of dog owners are more likely to make friends.
According to one study, this is down to four out of five dog owners chatting to fellow walkers.4 Most of us find that pets are an easy subject to bond over, and pet lovers tend to be open to telling stories about their favourite companions.
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