About the Healing Effect of Pets
If you own a pet then you already know how happy he or she makes you, but an increasing body of scientists are concluding that pets can make you healthier. Healthcare professionals are aware of this connection and animals are being incorporated into a number of medical and healthcare settings including nursing homes, schools, mental institutions and hospitals. Pets in prison settings have well documented success stories, too.
So, what is it about the furry, finny and feathered that has doctors encouraging their patients to adopt the pet of their choice? The decision is data drive. Since the 70s the human-animal bond and its effect on well-being has been well documented. This continued into the 80s when several landmark cases found heart attack patients who had pets lived longer, had lower blood pressure and had increased levels of the hormone, oxytocin.
Today, scientists understand that oxytocin does more than make you feel good. It also promotes regeneration of cells and gears your body toward a healthy, healing state. Currently, there are major studies underway all geared toward discovering additional benefits humans and animals receive from interaction with one another.
Animal Therapy is Centuries Old
Using animals in a medical setting is not a new technique, as documented pet therapy appears in written record 150 years ago. Florence Nightingale reportedly used them in her work. This effect pets have on humans is not simply relegated to dogs and cats. Scientists now know that any pet, from bearded dragons to birds, from horses to hamsters, all provide a positive effect.
Emotional Benefits from Animals
Scientists believe the connection between humans and animals boils down to the release of hormones designed to build trust and relaxation. In fact, some researchers discovered that simply making eye contact with their companion animals initiated the release of oxytocin.
However, oxytocin is not the only chemical reaction taking place. Interaction with a friendly animal results in a marked decrease in cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone. Another “feel good” hormone, dopamine, is released in addition to oxytocin.
It is no wonder many medical staff have changed policies to include therapy animals in their practices. These animals help to calm patients, lift their spirits and distract patients from their illnesses.
The Cancer Treatment Centers of America agrees with these findings. They state that animal therapy, when utilized in the treatment of cancer patients offered the emotional benefits including the following:
- Lessening feelings of anxiety and loneliness
- Distracting from pain
- Relieving boredom, pain or stress
- Motivation to recover
- Improved outlook on life
- Comfort during periods of grief
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Social Benefits from Animals
Researchers have observed that pet ownership reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness experienced by people from all walks of life. Beyond this, however, companion animals give their owners a sense of purpose and gives an outlet to the need for humans to nurture something. Often pets fill the void for their humans and offer love, companionship, security and comfort.
In 2013 Leslie Irvine, a Sociologist at the University of Colorado interviewed “pet guardians” experiencing homelessness in Boulder Colorado. She found that many of those she interviewed credited their animal with changing or saving their life.
One woman stated her dog helped her quit heroin, leave an abusive relationship, and improve her HIV status. Another man said his dog has helped him combat isolation and depression by making him get out, walk and socialize with other people. Others interviewed believed their animals had saved them from attempting suicide, protected them from danger, and kept them healthy and happy.
Researchers in one study discovered that animal interaction reduced aggression in normally aggressive individuals and enhanced a sense of empathy. The levels of stress hormones decreased in these same test subjects and the immune system received a boost.
Other researchers concluded through their studies that individuals with little to no social support systems benefited from the rich sensory environment pets provide. Interestingly enough, test subjects did not have to own an animal to benefit from the social benefits but could receive these beneficial effects simply by scheduling sessions to interact with the animals each week. In less than 12 minutes after visiting with a therapy animal most patients experience a drop-in blood pressure.
Learn About Health Benefits for Older Adults
Some of the best scientific data reported in the last decade is the impact of animals, particularly dogs, on individuals 50 years of age or older. Having a dog keeps older adults connected to their community, keeps them physically active and assists them in staying healthier into later years. Seniors who own animals are able to focus on something else besides their own personal issues and as a result have less depression than those who do not have pets.
A 2010 study indicated older adults who got out and walked their dog each day gradually improved their stamina and distance over time as compared to a group who walked each day with a human companion. Researchers found dog walkers did not miss a day of walking with their canine friends whereas those with human companions were easily dissuaded from everyday walks.
Additionally, in later years grief and loss and the emotional, mental and physical complications often accompanying them are mitigated with the presence of a trusted animal companion. While grief is still experienced, its duration and negative effects are lessened. The dependence of an animal companion can often motivate an elderly person to get out and resume some part of his or her normal routine, even in the absence of a loved one.
Learn About Health Benefits for Veterans
Companion animals and the effect on their owners has been extended to veterans suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Many veterans who suffer from PTSD find it difficult to do such things as stand next to someone they do not know or go into a building without fear.
Companion animals can help veterans recovery in these and other areas. Animal assisted therapy works because the individual must refocus his or her attention on something other than his or her own fears. Additionally, canines are now being specially trained to respond to certain cues specific to PTSD patients.
For example, when a dog senses his or her owner is beginning to have an anxiety attack, the dog is trained to move closer to the owner and gently give them a tap with their paw or nose. In one study, an 82 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms were reported, including a reduction in flashbacks and night terrors. Currently the Department of Defense has invested $300,000 toward continued research in this area.
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