The Healing Power of Animals: Pet Therapy for Humans

If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty, and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.

James Herriot

Science is catching up with philosophers and pet lovers of every kind. It turns out that dogs (and cats, horses, and many other animals) are human’s best friends. Animal-assisted – or Pet Therapy – helps people recover from physical and mental health conditions. The companionship of animals, in both medical and psychological fields, has proven benefits. Researchers have found a direct connection between interacting with animals and enjoying positive health benefits. 

If you have ever cuddled with a dog or a cat, you probably have felt an emotional boost. According to researchers from UCLA Health, most people release “happy hormones” (serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin), generating a relaxation and stress-reducing response., according to UCLA Health. 

While the mental health benefits are well known, animal therapy can speed healing and reduce the effects of some physical health issues. In 2007, the American Journal of Critical Care published research that showed visits with therapy dogs improved cardiovascular health in heartpatients by lowering blood pressure and stress hormone levels. Another benefit of animal-assisted therapy is improved skills. This is seen particularly in children with neurological differences, specifically autism. 

One of the most touching moments I remember from my days at St. Mary was the powerful effect of a dog named Winston. Winston was a beautiful English Springer Spaniel. He, and his person Karen, were extremely popular with patients. “I need Winston,” was all Karen, a retired surgical RN, would need to hear, and she and Winston would be in a patient’s room. As Karen would say, having Winston visit brought “a sense of normalcy into the lives of patients and their families.”  Winston seemed to have an instinct for people’s needs. One day, Winston and Karen walked down a hallway toward a patient’s room. Family members were gathered, and the patient’s daughter knelt to pet Winston. She explained that her mother was dying, and they’d always had dogs. Winston offered his soft paw when he got to the patient’s bedside. The dying woman stroked it gently, and a smile flickered. Not too long after, she peacefully passed away. 

The most popular animals in Pet Therapy programs are dogs, cats, and horses. Other animals, such as birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, and even llamas, have participated in programs. Any animal used in therapy or visitation should be certified by an organization that provides the following:

  • Ongoing education to the animal and owner
  • Liability insurance covering the animal and owner during volunteer activities

For a pet to become a therapist, you will need to provide the following:

  • Obedience training
  • A complete application and veterinary screening
  • Complete a therapy skills class
  • Pass a therapist skills test
  • Pass a therapist temperament test
  • Participate in an Animal-Assisted Pet or visitation program
  • Complete an apprenticeship of 1-3 months

To learn more about participating in an Animal-Assisted Pet or visitation program, contact your local American Kennel Club for information about programs in your area.