Benefits of pet therapy in the treatment and care of patients

Written by Karen Barker - 6th May 2022 (National Pet Month) 

 

‘We are a nation of pet lovers’ you often hear people state and it is widely recognised that pets can have many health benefits for their owners, including physical benefits from increasing opportunities for exercise, and mental health benefits, by providing support and comfort to individuals when they may be feeling depressed or lonely. 


So how can pets help in the treatment and care of patients in different healthcare settings and what has research suggested the benefits are to patients? 


Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, is a guided interaction between an individual and a trained animal for the purpose of therapeutic gains. The main pets that are used within this type of therapy are dogs and cats. 


Pet therapy can involve therapy pets visiting patients in different settings, including hospitals, long term care settings, community settings and hospice centres. Pet therapy can be used in a variety of ways, from meet-and-greet sessions to physical therapy, occupational therapy, and distraction therapy. 


Perkins (2020) discussed how pets may interact with patients in different ways including; petting, holding or talking to the animal. She suggested that animal owners/handlers will support to find interactions that are beneficial to the patient. 


Studies and research have shown a wide variety of ways that pet therapy can be used and benefits of pet therapy to patients across different age groups with different physical and mental health conditions. 


The use of pet therapy as a distraction technique for children, has been found to be widely successful within hospital settings for children. Vagnoli et al (2015) investigated the effectiveness of pet therapy as a distraction for children’s pain and distress during and after having blood taken. They found that the children who had been exposed to pet therapy, had lower serum cortisol levels, which indicated they were less stressed and anxious than the control group. 


The physical and mental health benefits of pet therapy to patients was highlighted in a study by Cole et al (2007) of patients hospitalised with heart failure. They found that the use of pet therapy helped improve cardiopulmonary pressures, neurohormone levels, and anxiety in the patients. 


Perkins (2020) discussed how pet therapy can assist patients to deal with an injury or illness through decreasing stress levels, fear, pain, blood pressure and anxiety. Further research by Creagan (2015) suggested that pet therapy can reduce pain, anxiety and depression in people with different health conditions. Examples they provided included people receiving cancer treatment, people with dementia and children having dental procedures. 


Pet therapy has also been used for critical care patients to support in their care and in some instances their recovery. Sharon Barker, a critical care occupational therapist at James Cook hospital provided this quote of her experience of using pet therapy and how it has helped patients she has worked with in critical care ‘Often we see patients at their most vulnerable. In critical care, patients lose control over their basic bodily functions, their ability to participate in their usual activities and their connections to the outside world. Pet therapy I have found has been a great way to humanise care, promote relaxation and engage patients in non-health care driven activities.’  


It is clear from research and studies conducted, that pet therapy has been found to have both physical and mental health benefits to patients of different ages and conditions, when used correctly within different healthcare settings. 


The power of animals to help humans is truly amazing and on National Pet Month it is important to recognise the importance of pets in helping vulnerable patients. 



References 


Cole K, Gawlinski A, Steers N,  Kottlerman J : Animal -Assisted Therapy in Patients Hospitalized with heart failure. AJ Crit Care 2007;16 (6): 575-585. https://doi.org/10.4037/ajcc2007.16.6.575


Creagan ET. Animal-assisted therapy at Mayo Clinic: The time is now. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2015;21:101.


Perkins,A: The benefits of pet Therapy: Nursing Made incredible Easy! 2020; 18 (1): 5-8. 10.1097/01.NME.0000613652.69241.d7. https://journals.lww.com/nursingmadeincrediblyeasy/fulltext/2020/01000/the_benefits_of_pet_therapy.2.aspx


Vagnoli L, Caprilli S, Vernucci C: Can presence of a dog reduce pain and distress in children during venipuncture? Pain Manag Nurs. 2015;16(2):89–95.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25439114/

 

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Karen is currently the subject specialist for Health at NCFE in which she has worked predominantly on the T level Health and Science development. She is passionate about working collaboratively with employers within the sector to ensure that they are able to provide excellent quality products and programmes that will support learners to achieve their career goals within the health sector. She has 15 years previous experience of working in education; including teaching in health and social care and then progressing onto leadership roles within health education within a FE/HE setting. She also has previous experience of working with individuals with mental health conditions and learning disabilities. Karen is a qualified teacher, assessor, moderator and mental health first aider and is currently undertaking a Masters in Education with Special Education needs.