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Many people have experienced the soothing quality of petting a cat or bunny, or the infectious laughter that bubbles up when tossing a ball to an energetic puppy. Animals can give us joy on many levels—helping us to forget our worries and pains, better connect with those around us, and enjoy the simple act of being alive.
For many, it may not be surprising that the medical field is exploring the health benefits of interacting with companion animals. In fact, many hospitals and other healthcare facilities incorporate animals as treatment tools for physical and emotional therapy.
Pet-facilitated therapy (PFT), or animal-assisted therapy, involves bringing animals to a group or individual with the hopes of providing a positive therapeutic or health effect. The therapy may occur anywhere from a Red Cross facility after a traumatic event or a nursing home, hospital, or school for children with special needs. Some studies and anecdotal evidence seem to support the usefulness of animals in helping people to feel better and connect to those around them.
When disasters such as earthquakes, tornados, and bombings occur, we often see our canine companions on the scene helping to search for people in the rubble. But the work of dogs, cats, and other animals behind the scenes can also have a positive impact on a trauma survivor.
Pet-facilitated therapy appears to help children and families deal with the pain and emotional trauma associated with hospitalization or a traumatic event. Visits from volunteer animals may help those who have pets at home maintain a more normal living during their hospital stay. In addition, playing with the animals often helps people to take a much-needed mental and physical break from the stresses of what they are going through.
Studies have shown that PFT can help to improve social interaction, psychosocial function, life satisfaction, social competence, and psychological well being, while reducing depression in adult home residents. It is also thought that interaction with these animals can help break the cycle of loneliness, hopelessness, and social withdrawal that is often seen in older adults. Many nursing homes and adult home-visit services will use companion animals as a means to promote interaction between the residents. PFT has been shown to be beneficial in elderly adults with schizophrenia.
For many, it is probably no surprise that animals can work wonders for children's emotional and social development. For instance, a child with a newly fitted prosthetic arm can practice his grasping skills by using a brush to groom a dog, or a child with a new prosthetic leg might improve their balance while throwing a ball to a dog. Even beyond the physical therapy, many would say that the emotional therapy these animals provide is priceless in helping children learn confidence, gain self-respect, and focus on their abilities instead of on their limitations.
Work has also been done on using animal-assisted therapy with autistic and intellectually disabled children. Time with dogs and horses can as be used as a powerful motivator to learn and develop new skills, interact with the world around them, and try new things.
Several ideas have been proposed to explain how animals may help improve well-being. Animals may do the following:
The American Veterinary Medical Association
Shriners Hospitals for Children
Mental Health Canada
Therapeutic Paws of Canada
Bans MR, Banks WA. The effects of animal-assisted therapy on loneliness in an elderly population in long-term care facilities. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2002;57(7):M428-M432.
Barak Y, Savorai O, et al. Animal-assisted therapy for elderly schizophrenic patients. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2001;9(4):439-442.
Brodie SJ, Biley FC. An exploration of the potential benefits of pet-facilitated therapy. J Clin Nurs. 1999;8(4):329-337.
Mudzyk A, Bourque M, et al. Animal assisted therapy in a nursing home. Soins Gerontol. 2011;(88):11-13.
Sobo EJ, Eng B, et al. Canine visitation (pet) therapy: Pilot data on decreases in child pain perception. J Holist Nurs. 2006;24(1):51-57.
The truth about animal-assisted therapy. Psych Central website. Available at: http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-truth-about-animal-assisted-therapy/00010295. Updated July 17, 2016. Accessed April 13, 2017.
Last reviewed April 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 4/29/2015