Management & Leadership

Paws for thought: The benefits of animal-assisted therapy

Jan 22, 2018
Animal Therapy

It turns out dogs are more than just man’s best friend. Here, three studies that show the positive benefits of animal-assisted therapy on mental health.

Key takeaways

  • Studies show that visits from therapeutic dogs can lower anxiety, stress and heart pressure.
  • Research also suggests the hormonal changes that occur when humans and dogs interact could help people cope with depression.
  • The results of animal-assisted therapy in the treatment of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder has also seen beneficial results.

It turns out dogs are more than man’s best friend. They’re pretty good at making the sick feel better, too, and can also have a significant effect on mental wellbeing.

In the past 10 years, animal-assisted therapy has expanded far beyond a visit to the surgery recovery room and cancer treatment centre. Today, programmes exist that provide animals who assist with physical therapy, help tutor children in reading and provide comfort in settings as disparate as disaster zones and university campuses.

Here, three ways your furry friend is good for your mental health:

1. Animals can reduce stress levels

Studies have shown that visits from therapeutic dogs lowered anxiety, stress and heart pressure among heart failure patients.

Researchers from the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center studied 76 heart failure patients – average age 57 – who got either a visit from a volunteer, a volunteer plus a dog, or no visit at all. The scientists meticulously measured patients’ physiological responses before, during and after the visits.

Anxiety levels dropped 24% for those visited by the dog and volunteer team, but only by 10% for those visited by just a volunteer. The scores for the group with no visit remained unchanged.

In addition, levels of epinephrine, a hormone the body makes when under stress, dropped 17% in patients visited by a person and a dog, and just 2% in those visited only by a person. But levels rose 7% in the unvisited group.

And heart pressure dropped 10% after the visit by the volunteer and dog. It increased 3% for those visited by a volunteer and 5% for those who got no visit at all.

2. Animals could help ease depression

Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests the hormonal changes that occur when humans and dogs interact could help people cope with depression.

Results from the study show that a few minutes of petting our pooches prompts a release of a number of “feel good” hormones in humans, including serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin.

The study expanded on research conducted in 1999 by South African scientists who found that 15 minutes of quietly stroking a dog caused hormonal changes that were beneficial to both the dog and the human.

But the South African study was small and didn’t test for serotonin, the brain chemical strongly linked with depression. Increased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin make us more mentally alert, improves sleep and can make us less sensitive to pain.

3. Animals can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder

The results of animal-assisted therapy in the treatment of PTSD have also seen significant benefits. In a study conducted at America’s Walter Reed Medical Center of the effect of dogs on veteran patients, psychologists noted an 82% reduction in PTSD symptoms. One particular case noted that interacting with a dog for as little as one week, enabled a patient to decrease his intake of anxiety and sleep medications by half.

One way that animals serve the PTSD patient is by demanding care, say the study’s researchers. Animals require attention. They are dependant upon someone for their food, for their grooming, and, often, for their exercise. For the those troubled by recurring thoughts of a traumatising experience, it is helpful to have an animal near at hand which requires the focus to be shifted away from self and toward them and their needs.

For the PTSD patient, pets are the ever-affectionate friend, determined to give and receive comfort and attention, say researchers. In the case of dogs and cats, they are also the warm body that curls up beside you when life, or your past, threatens to overwhelm you.

Learn more about the methods used by therapists to connect with patients by studying a counselling course at SACAP. Doing so will pave the way for a career as a Registered Counsellor, and provide you with invaluable skills that can be employed in any career. For more information, enquire now.

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