Does Pet Therapy Work, and How Can Animals Help You Heal?

Those of us who own pets know how happy they can make us. You have felt that special bond with your little fur baby. But a growing body of scientific research is showing that pets can make people healthier, too. Our pets can heal us and even save our lives. Places like hospitals, care homes, and mental institutions are increasingly using animals and pet therapy to help individuals recover and heal.

What Is Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy isn’t a new thing; it’s been around for a while. Pet therapy is also referred to as animal-assisted therapy (AAT) or pets as therapy. It’s a complementary approach to therapy that takes advantage of the natural healing effects that come from spending time with animals. The idea is that interacting with animals results in positive psychological changes.

Canine Assisted Therapy – WebMD

Pet therapy can support individuals with a variety of health conditions, including:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 
  • Cancer
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Physical disabilities
  • Dementia

While the most common therapy pets are dogs, the use of other animals is on the rise. Some people use animals like horses, guinea pigs, and rabbits, in the right setting. All therapy pets undergo specialist training. They then go to places like hospitals, care facilities, schools, and homes with a trained guide for a short visit.

Most pet owners know the joy that comes from sharing your life with a furry companion. Interacting with a friendly pet can bring many mental and physical benefits. The goal of pet therapy is to improve a person’s overall well-being: emotional, mental, social, and physical.

6 Benefits of Having a Pet

Animals can help people recover faster. Whether you’ve had surgery, experienced grief, or suffer from anxiety, pets can offer a type of reassurance humans crave. That unconditional love a pet can offer can have a calming effect and help balance your nervous system.

1. Reduce Stress And Anxiety

Pets and therapy animals can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Interactions with pets can help people manage long-term mental health conditions. The majority of pet owners experience mental benefits, with 74% of pet owners experiencing improvements in mental health.

Man stroking his pet and working on laptop as pet therapy.
Interactions With Pets Can Help Reduce Stress, Anxiety, And Depression (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Positive human and animal interactions are associated with physiological changes in the body. This includes a reduction in stress levels and feelings of anxiety and fear. Pets, especially dogs, also encourage their owners to get outside and go for a walk. Any form of exercise can help reduce anxiety and leave you feeling calmer.

2. Decrease Feelings Of Loneliness

Having a pet can help lower feelings of loneliness. Loneliness is a common problem in long-term care facilities. Animal-assisted therapy can help to reverse loneliness to a degree and offer companionship in nursing homes.

Man is hugging and cuddling his cute color point Devon Rex Kitten
Animals Have The Power To Combat Loneliness Across Multiple Generations (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Loneliness is a global issue, with more than 60 percent of Americans feeling lonely, left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship. With Millennial depression and loneliness on the rise, animals have the power to combat loneliness across multiple generations.

One of the reasons for the therapeutic effects of pets is that they fulfill the basic human need for touch. Even a short interaction with a playful furball can leave you feeling happier and more connected.

3. Support Recovery From Mental Health Problems

Pets can be beneficial for people healing and recovering from mental illness. Researchers pulled data from seventeen academic papers and found evidence that having a pet benefits people with mental health problems. In particular, pets helped people to manage their emotions and distract them from their symptoms. Taking care of a pet also gives you an element of control at a time when you need it.

4. Boost Oxytocin Levels, AKA The Love Hormone

Research has consistently shown that animals, particularly dogs, provide psychological benefits. The precise reason behind this is still unclear. We know that animals make us feel better, but why?

Owner playing with cat while relaxing on modern couch in living room interior
Hugging A Loving Animal Can Help You Feel Calmer And Happier (Image Source: Shutterstock)

One thing that remains consistent is that, when humans interact with dogs, both the dog and the human experience increased levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin is also known as the love hormone. It’s also triggered by hugging and seeing a parent or child. The hormone promotes feelings of love, well-being, and bonding.

On average, dog owners experience a 6.6 percent boost in oxytocin after scratching and stroking their dog. Animal contact also causes the stress hormone, cortisol, to drop. Stroking, hugging, and touching a loving animal can help you feel calmer and happier.

5. Increase Self-Esteem

Engaging with a therapy pet can help increase self-esteem by offering emotional support and encouraging social interaction. Pets tend to boost physical activity, as well. There’s a pretty strong link between pet owners and healthy lifestyles.

Young black man stretching after his training in city center with his white labrador dog beside him in the morning
Pets Tend To Boost Physical Activity Forces You To Get Up And Get Out (Image Source: Shutterstock)

When you have a four-legged friend that needs daily walks, it forces you to get up and get out. Getting out in nature has a ton of mental health benefits. Just a 20-minute walk in the forest can leave you feeling less tense and more relaxed. Regular exercise plays an essential role in easing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress.

6. Remind You to Stay Present

Connecting with a pet can both distract you and keep you engaged. When owners connect with their pets, it can create a sense of purpose. Animals live so much in the moment that you have no other choice but to stay present with them. They remind their caretakers to live in the moment and increase feelings of gratitude.

How to Reduce Stress Naturally

All pets, not just therapy pets, can benefit our mind and body. It takes only 10 minutes of playing with a dog to lower stress levels and get that feel-good effect. Interacting with pets can cause physiological and psychological changes in our bodies.

A mixed Labrador looking up and running after the chew toy her trainer is holding.
It Takes Only 10 Minutes Of Playing With A Dog To Lower Stress Levels (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Pet therapy can take on many forms, and the list of people who could benefit from it is limitless. Finding ways to cope with trauma and deal with stress is essential for moving forward and feeling a sense of purpose. By providing connection and unconditional love, pet therapy can help to reduce stress, increase self-esteem, and help you live in the moment.