What is pet therapy and does it work?

Pet Therapy is the use of animals in a clinical setting to improve patients’ social, emotional or cognitive functioning.

Image of a young blonde girl kissing a white horse

Most nursing homes now have either a resident dog or regular visits from people with gentle pets that are registered as therapy dogs. Studies show that interaction with animals activates the oxytocinergic system, which plays a role in social stress modulation. Researchers theorize that this is responsible for the positive effects of pet therapy or “animal-assisted therapy” (AAT).

Some of the claimed benefits of pet therapy are:

  • Decreased pain perception
  • Depression reduction
  • Increased positive social attention from others
  • Increased trust and trustworthiness
  • Increased empathy
  • Positive effect on learning when pet is present
  • Positive effects on blood pressure and heart rate
  • Promotion of a positive mood
  • Reduction of stress
  • Reduction of aggression
  • Stimulation of social behavior

Some of these benefits are more substantiated by research than others and the physiological mechanisms are not completely understood, but that there are benefits is widely acknowledged.

Pets have been introduced into clinical and other settings to assist, socialize and comfort:

  • Children having dental work done
  • Children in schools
  • Children with autism
  • Patients in hospices
  • People in disaster areas
  • People receiving cancer treatment
  • People under long-term care
  • Veterans with PTSD

Dogs and cats are used in pet therapy more than other animals, but depending on the therapeutic goal, other animals are also used ( horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, donkeys, llamas, and even pigs), although service animal certification may be different or lacking.

Studies show that pet owners generally have lower blood pressure and heart rates than those who own no pets. That may have something to do with your own increased exercise in caring for a pet but much of it surely comes from having a loyal friend who never has an unkind word for you.