Science-backed benefits of pet therapy and why you feel better after time with your four-legged friend.

Do you ever prefer your pet to anyone else’s company? Research shows that there are scientific reasons why sometimes you just need of down time with your four-legged friend. As anyone with a pet knows, you don’t necessarily need a trained therapy dog to reap the benefits of pet therapy. Understanding how time with pets helps us may give us the confidence we need to cancel tonight’s plans and cuddle up with our furry friend instead.

What is pet therapy?

Hippotherapy utilizes equine movements to help children in need of neuromuscular therapy.

Hippotherapy utilizes equine movements to help children in need of neuromuscular therapy.

Pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and any activities with animals that help people recover from or cope with health problems. Sometimes called “animal-assisted therapy (AAT),” time with pets can also serve a more general purpose.

There are hundreds of pet and animal-assisted therapy programs that serve people across all generations. Some common programs include:

  • Hippotherapy: Meaning “treatment with the help of a horse,” hippotherapy utilizes equine movement to help children with a wide variety of diagnoses that require physical and occupational therapy, including autism, Down syndrome, spinal cord injuries and more.
  • Epilepsy Service Dogs: Seizure response dogs are custom-trained to assist people who have epilepsy or other seizure disorders by detecting when seizures are about to occur and alert someone nearby for help.
  • Animal Assisted Therapy for Cancer Patients: Research shows that therapy dogs may help cancer patients decrease perceived pain and anxiety and, in turn, heal quicker.
  • Care for Veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Research shows that service dogs could be lifesavers for veterans.

From helping college students relax before final exams to serving as “comfort dogs” in pediatric dentist offices, animals are hard at work everywhere helping us feel better.

Does your pet need to be a therapy pet to help you feel better?

No! Anyone with a pet knows that just being with them can make us happier. But a growing body of research shows that they can make us healthier, too.

Using pets to help us heal is nothing new. It dates back to Florence Nightingale, who recognized that animals provided social support for mentally ill patients.

Most people remember her as the founder of modern nursing. However, many do not know that her first patient was actually a dog, and she incorporated her love of animals into her practice. She called it “animal companion therapy.” Today, hundreds of years later, dogs are arguably still a man’s best friend.

Benefits of Pet Therapy: First 5 Minutes

The repetitive motion of petting an animal can bring us a sense of calm.

The repetitive motion of petting an animal can bring us a sense of calm.

Most children hate going to the dentist. But in Northbrook, Illinois, JoJo, the six-year-old golden retriever, makes sure they are all happy.

JoJo greets children at a pediatric practice as soon as they walk in the door. He then sits with them while they are in the dental chair. His owners say it distracts the children from anything that may be uncomfortable.

When he is not at the dental office, JoJo is busy responded to other needs. He has traveled as far as Connecticut to help students after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

In the first minutes of petting an animal, our bodies release oxytocin, the “feel good hormone.” Over time, oxytocin has a powerful effect on our ability to heal and grow new cells. Studies show that just an extra boost of oxytocin can prepare us for quicker mental and physical healing.

Benefits of Pet Therapy: After 10 Minutes

Let’s face it: animals are hilarious. After 10 minutes, chances are they have made you smile or laugh at least a few times. Laughing and smiling releases hormones in our bodies that let us know there is no emergency, and we should relax.

Let’s face it: animals are hilarious. After 10 minutes, chances are they have made you smile or laugh at least a few times. Laughing and smiling releases hormones in our bodies that let us know there is no emergency, and we should relax.

Whether it’s putting one leg in front of another on a run or stroking a cat’s back for several minutes, repetitive motion is soothing. If you’ve ever instinctively rocked a baby back to sleep, you know that repetitive motion can calm.

After just 10 minutes of petting an animal, you start to feel the calming effects repetitive motion offers.

In programs like hippotherapy, children in need of neuromuscular therapy benefit from sensory stimulation. Muscles and joints receive deep pressure stimulation from bouncing and holding positions. At the same time, the brain receives other signals from the movement that helps them organize and prepare their body for complex tasks.

Benefits of Pet Therapy: After 15 Minutes

After 15 minutes with an animal, people experience lower blood pressure and less depression.

Additionally, pets can be powerful motivators to get us outside and exercising. One study even showed that elderly people are more likely to take daily walks if their walking companion is a dog, rather than a human. So if you are spending 15 minutes with an animal, chances are you’re also reaping the benefits of moving more and standing instead of sitting.

Over time, studies show that dog owners are more active and make fewer visits to the doctor. Heart attack patients with dogs survive longer than those without, and pet owners have lower cholesterol levels than those without pets.

After 15 minutes with an animal, people experience less depression and feel more relaxed overall.

After 15 minutes with an animal, people experience less depression and feel more relaxed overall.

How to take advantage of the benefits of pet therapy if you don’t have a pet

You don’t need to have a pet to take advantage of the health benefits animals offer.

Go to a cat cafe: Cat cafes, popular in Europe, are popping up all over the U.S.

Visit your mounted patrol: Find out where your city’s mounted patrol is. Many have visitation hours, and officers are often happy to see people stop by thanking them for their service.

Volunteer: Contact your local animal shelter and see what they need help with.

Foster an animal: Foster an animal for a few weeks and help find it an owner.

Take your neighbor’s pet for a walk: Chances are your neighbor would love some help, and their dog would love the extra attention.

Visit a dog park: No one ever said you need a dog to visit a dog park. Just be sure to ask their owners for permission before petting their dogs, as a courtesy and to make sure they are friendly.

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Have you experienced the benefits of pet therapy?

Do you have a therapy pet or just feel better after spending time with your favorite four-legged friend? Tell us about how you’ve experienced the benefits of pet therapy in the comments section below.