The Healing Power of Pet Therapy

There's mounting evidence that interacting with dogs, cats and rabbits relieves stress and lifts the spirits and health of patients and caregivers

by Sherri Snelling • Next Avenue
petting cat image

"Until one has loved an animal," the French novelist Anatole France wrote, "a part of one's soul remains unawakened."

He was right. A pet's companionship, comfort and non-judgmental nature can be powerful therapeutic tools. The growing Animal-Assisted Therapy movement seeks to increase animal-patient interaction to improve health and wellness. This form of therapy is being used to raise spirits in nursing homes and assisted living facilities; to soothe terminal patients; to support veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder; to benefit children with special needs, like autism; and to improve the health and mood of family caregivers.

Modern pet therapy dates to the 1860s, when famed nurse Florence Nightingale recognized how well animals provided social support for institutionalized, mentally ill patients. The American Red Cross deployed dogs to military and convalescent hospitals after World War II and relief organizations used dogs, cats and rabbits to help Hurricane Katrina victims recover from trauma.
Older patients in particular seem to benefit. A 2009 study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practices said pets were linked to higher perceived energy levels, lessened pain and anxiety, improved respiratory rates and better moods. Animal interaction, it seems, provides patients not only with a welcome distraction, but also a sense of purpose and a comforting reminder of home.

"If pet ownership was a medication, it would be patented tomorrow," oncologist Edward Creagan of the Mayo Clinic has said. "Having a pet around is like an effective drug — but without any side effects. I can't always explain it." The clinic employs more than a dozen dogs in its Caring Canines program for patients of all ages.

Silverado Senior Living, which operates assisted living residences, hospice sites and home-care services focused on patients with Alzheimer's disease, dementia and related conditions in eight states, has been a pioneer in integrating pet therapy into dementia care. The company's assisted living residents are encouraged to keep pets, which are also a regular presence in its long-term facilities.

"When we first opened our doors back in 1996, our goal was to make this community as much a home as possible," says Steve Winner, Silverado's co-founder and "chief of culture." "Since we are all animal lovers, we realized how important pets are to our lives and to our residents. This became a home not just for people with dementia but for the animals they love."
The first question many family members ask when they discover that an assisted-living facility or nursing home has pets is whether conditions are sanitary. The Mayo Clinic cites data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that there has never been a reported case of infection due to interaction with pets in any such facility.

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Photo courtesy of Sue McDonald/

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