Health & Wellness

Find Comfort from an Animal Friend: Pet Therapy for Depression and Anxiety + 5 Other Benefits  

If you’ve ever loved an animal, you know how much comfort and joy they can bring you. Animals give unconditional love so fully and freely that they can fill a place in your heart that you didn’t even know existed. And sometimes just one snuggle with your “furbaby” can make all your worries just melt away. I’ve had pets all my life, and they’ve always brought me great comfort. Today, it’s not uncommon to find me cuddled up with my French bulldog, Piggy, and my two bloodhounds, Hank and Emma, after I get home from work. Why? They help me destress after a long day.

In fact, did you know that pets are actually very therapeutic? I recall when I was in medical school, I had a Quaker parrot named Watson. He would join me at coffee shops while I studied and would peek out from behind my hair and say, “Hello, Watson! How are you, Watson?” Medical school was intense and often draining, so having that bit of comedic relief was a welcomed distraction at times. And, more recently, Piggy has been a great source of comfort for me since my mom’s passing. She rides with me to the office and is my constant companion throughout the day, providing me a sense of peace.

Now, we all can recognize the benefits of how we feel about family pets, but did you know that there’s an entire discipline of therapy known as pet therapy?  The use of pet therapy for depression and anxiety (as well as other benefits) is rapidly growing. So, whether you’re an animal lover like me or you’re just looking for a way to help manage depression or anxiety, pet therapy may offer some appealing benefits for you. So, let’s learn all about pet therapy—what it is, how it works, and what you can expect to get out of it.

 

What Is Pet Therapy?

As you’d expect, pet therapy is a field of therapy that utilizes animals as a form of treatment to improve someone’s emotional and/or mental health, or even their social skills. [1] Pet therapy for depression and anxiety typically involves the use of trained dogs who are taught to be calm, obedient, and comforting. [2] That said, other animals may be used as well (such as cats, fish, horses, guinea pigs, and more), depending on the individual treatment goals.

How Does Pet Therapy Work?

Before you partake in a pet therapy session, you’re matched with just the right animal. The animal must be certified as an emotional support animal, meaning it’s met several requirements, including passing a physical examination, completing obedience training, and showing both proper behavior and good temperament. [3]

So, exactly how does it work? Well, pet therapy for depression and anxiety focuses on guided interaction between a person and a trained animal. This interaction builds upon the well-documented human-animal bond and is known to help reduce stress and anxiety by releasing endorphins in your body. [4] How incredible is that?

Now let’s take a look at the many benefits of pet therapy and how effective it can be.

Pet Therapy for Depression and Anxiety + 5 Other Benefits [if this works]

Currently, scientists have focused most on research regarding using pet therapy for depression and anxiety. And their findings are quite impressive.

In a study of 68 nursing home residents, those who interacted with a dog reported significantly less fatigue, tension, and confusion. They also experienced significant decreases in depression [5].

In another study, scientists divided cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy into two groups to evaluate the benefits of pet therapy. Group A had a weekly hour-long therapy session with a dog, while group B didn’t. Amazingly, the researchers found that depression and anxiety symptoms in group B were twice severe as the symptoms experienced by group A. This showed that pet therapy was extremely beneficial in treating depression and anxiety in patients undergoing chemotherapy. [6]

While pet therapy for depression and anxiety is well-documented, there are other benefits of spending quality time with pets as well. Here’s a look at five more amazing perks to spending time with animals.

5 Other Benefits of Spending Time with Pets

1. Helps relieve pain

Aside from using pet therapy for depression and anxiety, one of the most promising benefits is its ability to help relieve pain. After all, the idea of spending time with a cute, lovable animal is far more appealing than taking medications, right?

Want to know just how effective pet therapy can be for pain relief? In a 2012 study, researchers evaluated the effects of therapy dog visits at an outpatient pain management facility. And the findings were incredible. The researchers noted that after the therapy dog visits, participants reported significant improvements in their pain levels and moods. Furthermore, participants noted experiencing a 23 percent reduction in pain after the therapy dog visits. Meanwhile, people who didn’t experience the visits reported a 4 percent reduction in pain. [7] That means the group who didn’t experience the pet therapy had pain levels almost six times greater than those who spent time with the therapy dogs!

2. Boosts mood

Think back to the last time you had a tough day. Now imaging having your pet greet you at the door or passing by a sweet, friendly animal on the street. It’s hard to stay angry or frustrated for very long when you have a wagging tail and big eyes staring up at you like you’re the best thing she’s ever seen! But is there scientific proof that interaction with a loving animal can actually boost your mood? Yes, there is!

A 2017 study explored the effects of pet therapy on overall wellbeing, including mood and anxiety. The study revealed that even a short interaction of 20 minutes with a therapy dog improved well-being and mood as well as decreased anxiety levels for students. They also suggested that the pet therapy experience could potentially remove learning impediments. [8] Imagine how much more fun and enjoyable school and/or work would be with your furry companion by your side! Luckily, some employers are starting to note the positive influence pets have in the workplace and are now allowing well-behaved pets in the office. Talk about a work-related perk!

3. Supports cognitive function

Believe it or not, pet therapy has also been shown to have positive effects on cognitive function, performance ability, and even social functioning in elderly patients. Specifically, it’s shown promise in helping patients who have dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

In a 2019 study, researchers examined the effects of pet therapy on Alzheimer’s patients. They discovered that when the patients participated in pet therapy with a dog, 100 percent of the participants showed an improvement in physical, behavioral, and psychological aspects. As a result, the researchers stated that pet therapy could increase the quality of life in people with Alzheimer’s disease. [9]

On a personal level, I can attest to this statement being true. My grandfather has dementia and his nursing home has a dog there for the patients. He has found true companionship in the dog, who follows him around all day. My grandfather finds comfort in talking to and spending time with this animal, and his quality of life has improved significantly. Amazingly, this companionship causes him to never feel alone. And, believe it or not, he always recognizes the dog—regardless of his dementia!

4. Makes you more active

Have you ever been driving down the road and noticed how frequently you pass someone walking his or her dog? The truth here is that if you’re responsible for the care of a pet, you’re tasked with meeting their daily needs—from food to love to exercise. And a perk of this responsibility? It actually benefits your health in ways beyond what we’ve discussed so far.

How so? Well, according to a 2019 study, dog owners are four times more likely to meet daily exercise requirements than non-owners. Researchers found that not only are dog owners more likely to walk more frequently, but they’re also more likely to walk for longer stretches! They even noted that this increase in activity results in better cardiovascular health as well. [10]

5. Supports proper stress management

Would you believe that studies have shown that even the simple act of petting an animal can both decrease your cortisol levels and boost your serotonin? Both of these physiological processes have been shown to help reduce stress.

In fact, one study showed that people experienced less stress during stressful tasks and events when they were accompanied by their pets. Interestingly, the researchers found that the participants experienced significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure levels when accompanied by their pets than they did when accompanied by a friend or spouse. [11]

Personally, I know that even Piggy’s soft snore provides me with a sense of calm and peace, while the feel of Hank’s soft fur helps to soothe my mind. There’s just something about the unconditional love you feel from your pet that can make life’s cares slip away, even if it’s just for a moment.

 

Pet therapy for depression and anxiety - Dr. Pingel

 

Key Takeaways

  • Interactions with animals, and specifically pets, can bring you a lot of joy and comfort.
  • In addition to our interactions with pets, there’s actually an entire discipline of therapy known as pet therapy.  And the use of pet therapy for depression and anxiety (as well as other benefits) is rapidly growing.
  • Pet therapy focuses on guided interaction between a person and a trained animal to help reduce stress and anxiety by releasing endorphins in your body.
  • Other benefits of pet therapy include everything from pain relief to boosting mood to helping your body to manage stress.

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