Animal Assisted Therapy Works!
Those of us who own pets know they make us happy. But a growing body of scientific research is showing that our pets can also make us healthy, or healthier. Animal assisted therapy is gaining more impetus every day.
That helps explain the increasing use of animals — dogs and cats mostly, but also birds, fish and even horses — in settings ranging from hospitals and nursing homes to schools, jails and mental institutions.
What, exactly, is animal therapy? According to the Mayo Clinic, “Animal assisted therapy is a broad term that includes animal assisted therapy and other animal assisted activities.” Animal assisted therapy can significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health problems:
- Children having dental procedures
- People receiving cancer treatment
- People in long-term care facilities
- People hospitalized with chronic heart failure
- Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder
And it’s not only the ill person who reaps the benefits. Family members and friends who sit in on animal visits say they feel better, too. Animals also can be taught to reinforce rehabilitative behaviors in patients, such as throwing a ball or walking. (From Mayo Clinic Consumer Health Retrieved 2-10-2016 from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/pet-therapy/art-20046342?pg=2.)
The retired guide dog is the resident canine at the Children’s Innhttp://www.aubreyhfine.com/faithful-companion/ on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Families stay there when their children are undergoing experimental therapies at NIH.
Vi, a chunky yellow Labrador retriever with a perpetually wagging tail, greets families as they come downstairs in the morning and as they return from treatment in the afternoon. She can even be “checked out” for a walk around the bucolic NIH grounds.
Thelma Balmaceda, age, 4, [loves to] pet Viola, the resident canine at the Children’s Inn on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Families stay at the inn when their children are undergoing experimental therapies at NIH.
“There really isn’t a day when she (Vi) doesn’t brighten the spirits of a kid at the Inn. And an adult. And a staff member,” says Meredith Daly, the inn’s spokeswoman.
But Vi may well be doing more than just bringing smiles to the faces of stressed-out parents and children. Dogs like Vi have helped launch an entirely new field of medical research over the past three decades.
Aubrey Fine, a clinical psychologist and professor at California State Polytechnic University says that use of animals in medicine dates back to Egyptian times where dogs and serpents were often symbols of powerful healers. “One could even look at Florence Nightingale recognizing that animals provided a level of social support in the institutional care of the mentally ill,” says Fine, who has written several books on the human-animal bond, including his latest “Our Faithful Companions: Exploring the Essence of Our Kinship with Animals.”
But it was only in the late 1970s at a conference in Dundee, Scotland researchers started to uncover the scientific underpinnings for that bond. In a study published in October of 1988 authors Vormbrock and Grossberg reported “Results revealed that (a) subjects’ BP levels were lowest during dog petting, higher while talking to the dog, and highest while talking to the experimenter and (b) subjects’ heart rates were lower while talking or touching the dog and higher while both touching and talking to the dog.”
Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, explains that interaction with animals can increase our level of oxytocin, the renowned “feel good” hormone.
“That is very beneficial for us,” Johnson said. “Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting. Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in the body’s ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier.”
But Johnson says it may also have longer-term human health benefits. “Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in the body’s ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier.” From an article by Laurel Johnson to downloaded on Feb. 9, 2016 from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/07/29/pets-as-therapy/.
Johnson is now working on a new project with likely benefits for dogs and humans. Military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are providing shelter dogs with basic obedience training.
And while it’s still early in the research, she says, one thing is pretty clear: “Helping the animals is helping the veterans to readjust to being at home.”
Animals act as therapists themselves or facilitate therapy — even when they’re not dogs or cats. For example, psychologist Fine, who works with troubled children, uses dogs in his practice — and also a cockatoo and even a bearded dragon named Tweedle.
“One of the things that we have always know is that the animals help a clinician go under the radar of a child’s consciousness, because the child is much more at ease and seems to be much more willing to reveal,” he says.
Horses have also become popular therapists for people with disabilities. “The beauty of the horse is that it can be therapeutic in so many different ways,” says Breeanna Bornhorst, executive director of the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program in Clifton, Va. “Some of our riders might benefit from the connection and the relationship-building with the horse and with their environment. Other riders maybe will benefit physically, from the movements, and build that core strength, and body awareness and muscle memory.”