The science behind animal therapy

Although animal-assisted therapy dates only to the 1990s, people have long had a gut appreciation for the succor animals provide.

In the 1960s child psychologist Boris Levinson wrote about “pet therapy” after observing the role his dog, Jingles, played in helping patients open up. Florence Nightingale wrote about the ways “animal companions” helped soldiers wounded in the Crimean War as early as the 1850s.

Various studies have found pet therapy reduced pain and emotional distress among patients, decreased loneliness and anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure) among residents of nursing care facilities, and even reduced anxiety scores in patients waiting for appointments.

Because animal therapy has psychological, physiological, emotional and physical components, it’s difficult to design clinical studies to assess animal therapy. Consequently, the science behind why animal therapy works is still emerging. Some studies suggest it reduces stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and aldosterone and increases healthy, social hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins.

While determining why animal therapy works may be a challenge, assessing patients’ reactions to animals is more straight forward. One study found adult chemotherapy patients vastly preferred receiving their treatment in a room with a therapy dog when given the option.

Glenna Mockbee, executive director and founder of Therapy Pets of Greater Cincinnati, doesn’t concern herself with the science behind her work. Her own experience ““ she currently works with four therapy dogs ““ and the stories she hears from the roughly 220 therapy dog owners she has certified, provide ample anecdotal evidence that pet therapy works.

“I just think it’s the unconditional love that is so healing,” she says.

 

why animal therapy works