Most pet owners agree that they are happier when around their furry (and non-furry) friends. Pets can also help those recovering from illness in hospitals, nursing homes and other ambulatory settings.
Defined as a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal, pet therapy increasingly is being utilized to help people with behavioral health issues, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
While dogs and cats are most commonly used, due to the joys and calming effect they have; other animals — fish, guinea pigs, horses and others — can have an impact. Therapeutic goals dictate the type of animal.
Here are the top five benefits associated with pet therapy.
1. Improved heart health
Petting an animal has a lowering effect on your heart rate and blood pressure, especially in anxious patients. The action allows you to release endorphins (relaxation hormone) while relieving your stress. This, combined with increased activity, can lead to decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
2. Giving a sense of purpose
There’s a connection developed between the patient and pet while therapy dogs and animals visit in hospital and ambulatory settings. At Long Island Jewish Forest Hills, patients have expressed that the animals need them and the pets would miss them if they weren’t able to meet. This bond brings joy and confidence, which can boost recovery.
3. Creates happy environments
Pets have an unparalleled calming effect on humans. There’s something refreshing when an animal greets you as if you were a celebrity. While patients benefit most from pet therapy visits, staff also takes advantage, often taking breaks to spend time with them. It’s a happy experience for all, including the pets, who receive palpable, unconditional love.
4. Better relationships
Pets encourage communication and reduce boredom. This can be critical for patients who endure lengthy hospital stays. Having this pleasure can carry over to your personal and even professional relationships. Fear and loneliness can take a toll on a patient. Sharing love with animals can reduce the effects of a frightening diagnosis, or can strengthen morale among patients who don’t have family members visiting.
5. Enhanced self-esteem
Interacting with pets helps patients with their self-confidence by promoting a sense of independence. Being productive can be empowering. And a positive attitude has healing and wellness benefits that push beyond hospital walls.
Madalyn Frank-Cooper oversees the pet therapy program at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills. She is also the stroke coordinator in the hospital’s Quality Management Department. She was previously director of Forest Hills’ Emergency Department and she owns two shih tzu-bichon mixes, Lucy and Leon.