Pet therapy, also known as Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), is far from a new concept but it is only really in the last century that it has come to the fore as a credible way of managing both psychological and physical well-being.
We spoke to psychologist Dr Meg Arroll to find out more.
Not only has pet therapy been used “for people with physical illness and those with mental health conditions”, she explains “but it is also good for people without health problems as a way to increase activity and manage stress.”
“Interacting, or even simply being in the presence of animals can have a calming effect,” notes Dr Meg. This, she explains is down to an intrinsic human trait of being drawn to other living things for survival. Similarly when it came to domesticating dogs or training horses, we did so because we needed animals’ help. Fast forward to the modern era and “animals can open-up avenues for personal growth, offer the experience of unconditional love and the opportunity to care for another living creature.” As well as lowering stress levels, pets can also have a positive impact on the more tangible measures of stress including heart rate and skin temperature.
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Dr Meg points out that pet therapy can also help people with acute psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, eating disorders, psychosis and mood disorders. “A study with 230 patients with mental health disorders found that just a single pet therapy session reduced anxiety.”
One particular sector of the population that can benefit from pet therapy is the older generation. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, the population is getting older with 18% aged 65 and over and 2.4% aged 85 and over1. With an ever increasing older population comes the growing problem of social isolation for this demographic.
However there is a silver lining as Dr Meg explains, “pet therapy has been studied in residents of nursing homes and been found to improve mood, boost social interaction and reduce feelings of apathy in residents. The human-dog interaction in this research was also an effective way to prevent social isolation.”
“An Italian study looked at people with Alzheimer's disease over a six-month period. Twenty patients received a structured pet therapy program that aimed to help attention, language and also spatial orientation – all of which are known to become progressively impaired in Alzheimer's disease.
In this program, the patients were asked to play games with their therapy dog such as fetch and 'hide the ball'. These games use cognitive skills and require attention to the task. Also, the patients had to care for the dog which again takes cognitive ability.
Compared with people who didn't receive the pet therapy, those who interacted with a dog were less depressed and had better cognitive function. Their improvements were even superior to people who had a specialist rehabilitative therapy.”
Pet therapy can also be used to help treat physical ailments. Dr Meg highlights a recent study which involved seventy patients recovering from hip and knee surgery. They were either treated with standard physiotherapy or physiotherapy alongside pet therapy.
“In this study, the same dog was used for all the patients – he was a 5-year-old curly-coated retriever called Holden who was certified therapy dog. Patients in the pet therapy group were visited by Holden and his handler for 15 minutes in the days after surgery. Both those in the physiotherapy group and pet therapy group were discharged three days after their operations.
The patients who interacted with Holden reported less pain and were more satisfied with their stay in hospital after their surgical procedures. This shows that even a brief time with pets can have a substantial impact on health and well-being.”