Healthspan July 31, 2018

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). We've long since known pets to be a crucial part of healthcare, but 'pet therapy' is a relatively new phenomenon used for those with physical and mental health problems. We investigate the health benefits that mean pet people really are the best.

Pets for stress

Humans rely on other living things for survival, so being in the presence of animals can have a calming effect. In the past we used other types of animals as methods of transport or for hunting but, now-a-days, the unconditional love we have for our pets brings us personal growth and reduced stress levels through the chance to care for another creature. Not only that, studies using measures such as heart rate and skin temperature show 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 – think knee and hip surgery – researchers compared 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 – he was a 5-year-old curly-coated retriever called Holden and a certified therapy dog. 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 toward 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. So, it's 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 40% of dog owners are more likely to make friends. This is down – one study says – to four out of five dog owners chatting to fellow walkers whilst out rambling.4 Most of us find pets are an easy subject to bond over and pet lovers tend to be open to telling stories about their favourite companions.

Brooks, H (February 2018) The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence, BMS Psychiatry.
2 C; Dong, Y; Thornhill, T; Wright, J; Ready, J; Brick, G; Dyer, G (January 2015) Can Therapy Dogs Improve Pain and Satisfaction After Total Joint Arthroplasty? A Randomized Controlled Trial, NCBI.
3 H; Rushton, K; Lovell, K; Bee, P; Walker, L; Grant, L; Rogers, A (February 2018), The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence, NCBI.
4 L; Martin, K; Christian, H; Nathan, A; Lauritsen, C; Houghton, S; Kawachi, I; McCune, S (April 2015), The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support, NCBI.


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