Man's Best Friend: The Benefits of Pet Therapy

  1. Pets are part of the family. What happens when a patient is in the hospital or other facility long-term? This article explores the benefits of pet therapy in the clinical setting.

    Man's Best Friend: The Benefits of Pet Therapy

    For many of us, we come home from a long day of work to the pitter patter, tail-wagging love of a pet. According to the Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy, the strength of the human-animal connection allows companion animals to quickly become members of our family. Pets fill a void in the lives of their owners by offering an endless amount of unconditional love.

    Pets can decrease loneliness, stimulate conversation and physical reactions that are important to your health. In short, pets can increase your quality of life and happiness. But, what happens when a patient is in the hospital or other facility long-term? Does this bond decrease? Is there a missing piece to the pet-lovers overall health?

    May is National Pet Month and a great time to explore the many benefits of pet therapy.


    What is Pet Therapy?

    Dogs and cats come to mind when we think of pet therapy, however, fish, guinea pigs, horses, birds, and other animals that meet the screening criteria can be used. According to Mayo Clinic, pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities.

    Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field. It is a formal, structured program that helps the patient meet goals in their treatment, such as better coping skills or improvement of health problems. Animal-assisted activities is a more generalized concept. This includes using pets in a casual way to provide comfort, enjoyment, and recreation.


    Benefits of Pet Therapy

    Physical Benefits - A pet can help motivate your patient to get out of bed. One study found that having a pet increased the physical activity of elderly patients. Your patient can be motivated by the idea of petting, walking, or playing with a cat, dog, or other animals.

    Emotional Benefits - Have you ever been sad and found that your cat or dog seemed to connect with your emotions? Pets form a very special bond with people quickly. The same study as mentioned above, found significant improvements in the emotional health of patients, including:

    • Less behavioral disturbances in patients with Dementia
    • Improved socialization in Dementia patients
    • Less anxiety and fear in patients with Depression
    • Improved social behaviors in Schizophrenic patients
    • Less loneliness


    Sense of Purpose - You may find that a patient who suffers from depression, anxiety, or chronic illness struggles with feelings of purpose. They may choose to stay in bed or simply in the confines of their room on days that this feeling is strongest.

    Pets can change these feelings. You may find that on pet therapy days, patients chose to go to the activity room or allow the pet to visit even when they have chosen to not allow other visitors. This is a testament to the value of pet therapy.

    Decreased Stress - Animals evoke feelings of happiness. Happiness and other positive feelings are a result of the release of endorphins, which are chemicals produced by the brain.

    Spending time with animals will increase the secretion of endorphins, decreasing stress and increasing the feeling of happiness. Pets also decrease loneliness, anxiety, and can even decrease the severity of symptoms of some health conditions.

    Positive Memories - Have you ever seen a new puppy at the park and immediately remembered the day you brought your dog or cat home? Animals evoke memories. They can help patients connect with their past and feelings of happiness and pleasure.

    Staff Can Benefit Too - Therapy animals will offer love and understanding to staff too! If you are having a bad day and see the therapy dog trotting down the hall, don't be afraid to snag a few kisses. It could be just the thing the doctor ordered on a stressful day as a nurse.


    Ways to Use Pet Therapy In Your Practice


    Have you ever considered pet therapy for your patients? Some areas of care are difficult to provide pet therapy due to infection control issues. But, even in these areas exceptions can be made at times, if the benefits outweigh the risks. Below are a few ideas:

    Nursing Homes or Assisted Living: According to the University of New Hampshire, therapy dogs are commonly used in these settings to increase social activity in patients and lift their spirits. The animal may live in the facility too or just come for regular visits with their owner.

    Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centers - Pets provide purpose and companionship to people during recovery from addictions. It can give them something to focus on other than the physical symptoms of withdrawal.

    Home Care or Hospice - Some agencies will have a volunteer dog who makes visits to homebound patients. These patients may be without an animal companion, but find peace in the soft puppy kisses and cuddles.

    In-patient Hospital Visits - Even in some high acuity settings, animal visits are appropriate. It may be through a volunteer animal or a special visit by the patient's pet that they have been separated from during the hospitalization.

    Pediatrics - Everyone knows that animals and children go hand-in-hand. If you care for pediatric patients and don't have a pet therapy program, talk to your nurse supervisor or administrator about the positive benefits pediatric patients may have with frequent visits from a therapy pet.


    Animals can boost the spirits of a hurting patient. They provide love, connection, and purpose. During National Pet Month, thank a therapy dog and their owner for all of the love, compassion, and benefits they give to you and your patients.


    Do you have a pet therapy story? Ever experienced a fun, emotional, or bizarre pet-patient connection? Place your thoughts in the comments, we love hearing them and connecting with you through your real-life nursing stories.
    Last edit by Joe V on Jun 14
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