It’s common knowledge that owning a pet can improve the quality of life for the owner, providing companionship and often encouraging a more active lifestyle, but recent studies show that pets can also provide a therapeutic benefit for patients in a healthcare context.
The benefits of pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), were first noted in the 19th century, but only recently has the practice become more widely accepted as a valid treatment or rehabilitation option, typically used as a complement to traditional western medicine or rehabilitation methods. AAT typically consists of scheduled appointments with a certified team, including both an animal and its handler. Therapeutic goals can range widely, from improving social and emotional well-being to improving cognitive or physical function.
AAT is also gaining traction as a preventative therapy, reducing stress, anxiety and depression in patients, potentially lessening the need for further interventions. The therapy can aid in recovery from medical procedures and can also contribute to the management of diseases such as cancer, heart disease and mental health disorders. Studies have shown that AAT can lower a patient’s blood pressure and reduce the amount of medication needed.
Within healthcare institutions, pet therapy has shown to be beneficial to patients in nursing homes and continuing care environments as well as rehabilitation facilities. Patients with chronic conditions and children who must stay in the hospital to manage diseases can also benefit from the therapy, reporting increased feelings of well-being and a more positive attitude after visiting with the pet.
Researchers are still studying the practice in hospitals. There may be an increased risk of infection for those patients with weakened immune systems although, when additional hygienic measures are taken―such as cleaning the pet thoroughly before entering the healthcare facility and wiping the pet down between each patient visit―this risk decreases significantly. Most hospitals have very strict rules around cleanliness and vaccinations, and they screen each pet carefully for training and behaviour.
AAT also has applications outside of the healthcare setting. Bringing pets in to interact with students before exams have been known to reduce anxiety, and to provide a stress release for employees working long hours. It can help children and adults who are anxious about dental and other procedures, and can also benefit youth who have undergone trauma.
As healthcare providers continue to consider the benefits to their patients, pet therapy continues to grow in popularity with patients. With such a wide range of therapeutic applications, the practice is likely to continue to expand in popularity and usage, especially as the acceptance of alternative and complementary treatments grows.