At home, pets provide companionship that relaxes and comforts their owners. In fact, 62% of households in America already have pets. The value of owning a pet extends beyond casual comfort in homes. However, animal-assisted therapy harnesses the physical and emotional benefits of animal interactions to treat patients for a variety of physical and mental conditions.
Generally, humans who form relationships and bonds with animals live longer and have a better quality of life. Specifically, studies have linked interactions with animals to social development and improved mental health, as well as lowered blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate. These benefits may translate to improvements in conditions including chronic heart failure, autism, post-traumatic stress, and cancer.
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Animal interactions allow patients to give affection as well as receive it. Caring for a living creature can draw a patient’s attention away from physical pain, anger, or depression. Pets provide contact comfort, in which a human and an animal form a bond simply through touch.
Although cats and dogs are most commonly used in animal-assisted therapy, more unusual animals like horses, hedgehogs, rabbits, skunks, snakes, and even spiders can also help patients. A study of people with dementia who worked with horses, for example, suggested that equine therapy not only improved strength, flexibility, and balance, but also improved their general moods and led to fewer incidents of negative behavior.
Advocates of animal-assisted therapy argue that animals are undervalued as a form of medical treatment. Because it is difficult to link specific numbers to benefits of animal interactions, insurance companies and legislatures see no reason to cover animal-assisted therapy along with other forms of medical treatments.
“A pet is a medication without side effects that has so many benefits,” Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, told Medical News Today. “I can’t always explain it myself, but for years now I’ve seen how instances of having a pet is like an effective drug. It really does help people.”
Animal-assisted therapy, while still not considered medical treatment by many insurance companies and legislatures, has many real benefits for people. Considering animal-assisted therapy as a treatment for mental health, stress, or other medical problems could prove to be a major help to you as well.
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