Pet therapy, or as it’s otherwise known, ‘Animal-assisted interventions’ (AAI), can be defined as: ‘alternative or complementary therapeutic approach which takes advantage of the natural healing ability of time spent with animals.[1]’ Animal lover or not, we have all seen the importance of pets.

They are friends, family, guides, heroes – bulldog to budgie, they are company. And their therapeutic qualities are becoming increasingly popular in the world of medicine. Studies and evidence generally point in favour of animals as effective means to treatment. Pet therapy is divided into two categories. Firstly, animal-assisted activities (AAA): casual visits with no identified treatment goals; visits aren't documented and aren't a part of the plan of care.[2] And animal-assisted therapy (AAT): individualized stated goals that are identified for each visit; visits are documented and are considered to be a part of the patient's care plan.[3]

These methods can be applied to a number of cases: from recovering addicts, to mental health disorders; elderly conditions like dementia or children with autism. The ‘forces that connect people and animals are especially strong and enduring.[4]’ And there is evident potential for improved recovery, but animal therapy is yet to integrate itself into mainstream healthcare.[5]

There are a few issues that have stalled its progress. The quality of methodological studies has sometimes been lacking; accessing animals within institutional settings can be difficult and there are some fears over zoonotic diseases. There are also issues with maintenance and care: recruiting people to look after these animals and the overall cost of hosting one.[6] But these are minor issues compared to the bigger picture and the unlocked potential with animal-assisted intervention. Ultimately, ‘animals and humans have existed in therapeutic relationships with each other for more than 12,000 years[7]’ – and they will continue to do so. An animal’s presence is more than aesthetic; they possess a deeper effect. Within a hospital context interaction between the patient, animal and therapist improves communication, elevates self-confidence, reduces the symptoms of diseases, and improves the quality of life.[8] Animals are an effective addition to conventional medicine, and here’s why:

Psychological Benefit

Animals can be a reassuring presence. For any type of mental-health issue, an animal’s company is most welcome. With an animal by your side, you’re never alone and tasks that would appear impossible, become a lot simpler. Research has shown AAI to lower levels of anxiety and help people relax. The same research also found that petting animals promoted the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin – all hormones that help lift someone’s mood.[9] The psychological strain of addiction or other mental-health related issues are emotionally distressing. Pet therapy is a powerful way to deal with this.

One research study assessed the effects of AAI on patients’ anxiety, fear and depression before electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).[10] While the results for depression were modest, analysis showed that AAT reduced fear by 37% and anxiety by 18%.[11] An animal is a companion with few strings attached. They are essentially there to help you, and do not ask for anything in return – except feeding here and there. It is, of course, difficult for pets to fully eradicate mental-health conditions, or prevent the onset of things like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. They are, however, great assistors in easing stress, when therapeutic procedure is inherently fear-inducing or has a negative societal perception.[12] Mental illness is personal, and dealing with it is frightening. Pet therapy provides non-discriminatory care, companionship and makes dealing with your condition, a much less-daunting process.

Physical

Pet therapy also offers physical improvements. The majority of these occur, due to the same effect animals have on the mind: relaxing and reducing levels of stress. This easing of tension is what stimulates a number of physical health benefits. As mentioned, petting animals can calm a person. As someone becomes more at ease with their surroundings, breathing slows and their blood pressure will likely drop. This means cardiovascular health will ultimately improve.[13] This type of therapy has also shown to release hormones like Phenylethylamine, which has the same effect as chocolate – which can only be a good thing.[14] It is also said to reduce pain. Physical pain is usually all someone can think about. It’s there when they sleep, wake-up and it can often be relentless. Anything that detracts from this is worth considering. Animals provide entertainment – a useful distraction from pain. AAI is introduced to assist medicine and relax people. The psychological benefits may be more noticeable, but the calming nature of pet therapy is far-reaching. Minor physical benefits, yes. But when paired with the psychological benefits, it is a powerful treatment method.

The Best Company

As mentioned, there’s more to pets than fetch, walks and hugs. They are family members and for some – particularly older – people they are invaluable friends. Loneliness is perhaps the biggest threat to older people. There are currently nine million people in the UK who consider themselves lonely. Of these, four million are elderly.[15] Loneliness is not just the feeling of being alone; it has a number of other implications. It can have an adverse effect on a person’s self-confidence, self-esteem and ability to socialise. With animal therapy, all of these issues are eased. Dogs are the most popular form of AAI, and in this instance they – like all animals – are a man or woman’s best friend. As Ivan Dimitrijević suggests, ‘loneliness is easier to endure in the company of animals.[16]’ Nurses who have assisted with pet therapy have recorded qualitative observations identifying animals to relieve loneliness and boredom among many elderly people.[17]

As much as pets are a friend, they also help people make friends. Pets give people purpose, routine and something to talk about. They can share stories about being a pet owner, how their pet helps them and develop friendships on this basis. Animals seem to improve social interactions and promote social happiness and harmony for the general population as well as for certain groups such as children and those with a disability.[18] As well as growing older, recovery can be an incredibly lonely process. Pet therapy is a way to connect and generally bring some happiness into a difficult period.

Despite nurses like Florence Nightingale advocating the importance of animals within care environments, their integration into hospitals and other healthcare settings has been slow.[19] Nearly all the evidence is positive, and there is a sense that that it’s only a matter of time until AAI is fully integrated into conventional medicine. Convincing conventional medicine is part of the problem. The most common animals used in pet therapy, are dogs. They are probably the most accurate representation of the joy AAI can bring to someone’s life. As Kathie M. Cole, lead author of the study and a clinical nurse III at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, states: “Dogs are a great comfort. They make people happier, calmer and feel more loved. That is huge when you are scared and not feeling well."[20] This is true for all animals involved in AAI. In a medical context, pets are an untapped potential. This is likely to change.