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, then, that the medical field is exploring the health benefits of interacting with companion animals. In fact, many hospitals and other healthcare facilities are starting to 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. Whether this is at a Red Cross facility after a traumatic event, or at your local nursing home or hospital, using animals as therapy is gaining in popularity. Though little research has been done in this area, preliminary studies and anecdotal evidence seem to support the usefulness of animals in helping people to feel better and connect to those around them.

Trauma Survivors

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, and visits from volunteer animals may help patients 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.

The Elderly

Preliminary 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 schizophrenic patients.

Children

For many it is probably no surprise that animals can work wonders for children's emotional and social development. In fact, PFT is helping children rehabilitate at Shriners Hospitals for Children. 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 his 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 to 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 mentally disabled children. Time with dogs, horses, and even dolphins can as be used as a powerful motivator to learn and develop new skills, interact with the world around them, and try new things. Recent study at the Childrens’ Hopsital in San Diego showed that PFT reduced pain perception in children undergoing a surgical procedure.

Theories on Why Pet-Facilitated Therapy Works

Several ideas have been proposed to explain how animals may help improve well-being. Animals may do the following:

  • Remind people of home
  • Provide a more “natural” environment in the hospital or care facility
  • Provide non-threatening reassurance and a non-judgmental acceptance
  • Provide non-verbal and tactile comfort
  • Facilitate exercise, play, and laughter
  • Provide a link with reality to enhance emotional stability