Can pets help you heal from the physical and emotional effects of an illness? If you have a pet or have taken part in pet therapy in a medical or counseling setting, you have likely experienced firsthand the de-stressing, supportive effects of bonding with a furry friend.
What is pet therapy?
Pet therapy is the use of animals in medical, crisis, community and educational settings to provide emotional or physical support. In hospital settings, therapy pets may be used for hospital room visits, physical therapy, support during medical procedures and group counseling sessions.
“There is a lot of research showing how beneficial and therapeutic pets can be in a number of settings,” says Sandy Pyle, RN, oncology nurse navigator at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support at Piedmont Athens Regional.
Pyle is the owner of therapy dog Amiko, a “Bernedoodle” (part Bernese mountain dog and part standard poodle). She brings Amiko to the Loran Smith Center each workday. She and Amiko work with patients one-on-one and in groups. They also see hospital staff members.
One of the biggest benefits of pet therapy, she says, is that it helps alleviate stress and anxiety for patients, family members and medical providers alike.
“I get calls from departments asking if he can make a visit to their staff,” Pyle explains. “He helps in a variety of different ways. He’s so happy and joyful when he sees people.”
Safety is a concern in all healthcare settings, so therapy pets must complete special training, have current vaccinations, be well-groomed and exhibit appropriate behaviors before they can see patients and staff. Their handlers must also complete training.
The health benefits of pet therapy
Pyle says spending time with a furry friend has numerous health benefits, including:
Stress reduction. Walking a dog, petting a dog or cat, riding a horse – all of these activities can boost your mood and reduce stress and anxiety, she says. One study found that workers had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol when pets were present in the workplace.
More exercise and socialization. “I have to walk him every day at some point, and often, one of my colleagues will join me,” she says. “We’ll walk, have a chance to talk and get some fresh air – it’s good for everyone.”
Help with social anxiety. “When patients come to our center for the first time, they may feel uncomfortable, but Amiko helps break the ice and gives that common bond and element for everyone to talk about,” Pyle explains.
A mindset shift. “Having to take care of a pet helps take some of the focus off ourselves,” she says. “And you are providing for another being who loves you in return.”
A nonjudgment source of support. “Dogs are used in schools to help children with learning problems and difficulty reading,” says Pyle. “For a kid to be able to sit down and read to a dog who’s not going to judge or make fun of them, it gives them the confidence and ability to overcome their learning challenges.”
Support during difficult circumstances. “Amiko is very tuned in to our grief counseling patients,” says Pyle. “He will stick with them and really seems to know when someone needs extra TLC.”
Recovery from an illness. Pyle says physical therapists have asked Amiko to work with their stroke patients. Brushing him, for example, can help patients regain coordination.
Increased productivity. “Studies how shown that having animals around can increase employee productivity,” says Pyle.
Support for healthcare workers. Amiko has been part of the Center for more than a year, and Pyle says he’s made a big difference in the lives of staff members. “We deal with cancer every day and sometimes don’t realize the burden it can put on us, as much as we love our jobs,” she explains.
So next time you’re feeling down, consider curling up with your pet or the furry friend of a neighbor, friend or relative. If you or a loved one is in the hospital, ask a member of your medical team if the hospital offers pet therapy.
Learn more ways to reduce stress and improve your well-being.