The power of pet therapy

Pets aren’t just cute to cuddle. Did you know that having or playing with a pet can help you recover from illness and stay healthy?

Health Agenda magazine
April 2019

Have you always wanted a pet? Well research might support your decision to get one. Numerous studies have shown the physical and mental health benefits of owning a pet.

“Contact with pets is a source of support and wellbeing for people of all ages,” says Emeritus Professor Jacquie Rand, executive director and chief scientist at the Australian Pet Welfare Foundation. For kids, “pets can have a special role in healthy child development and offer social and emotional [support].”

The healthy habits of pet owners

Australian research published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that dog owners unsurprisingly generally get out in the fresh air more regularly. Plus, many studies have supported the variety of health benefits of regular walks, from boosting mood to reducing the risk of chronic disease. And dog owners visit a doctor 15% less often than people without a dog, reports the journal Social Indicators Research.

“Studies have proven that exercising with a dog can result in weight loss, increased fitness and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Prof Rand. “Dogs can also increase immunity to allergies and improve pulse rates and blood pressure by decreasing stress.”

A sense of support

The physical health benefits may seem obvious, but studies show that pet ownership can also improve our mental health.

“Animals can create calming effects for their owners because they’re a source of non-judgemental social support,” says Prof Rand.

It’s this non-judgemental environment that can relieve stress and loneliness.

“Studies show that animals can act as stress buffers to decrease the effects of anxiety,” says Prof Rand. “The ‘feel good’ hormone, oxytocin, is released when people are in close contact with their pets, which reduces stress hormones and explains feelings of relaxation.”

And it’s not just dogs that are beneficial to our health; many animals offer benefits in unique ways.  In one study, a group of stressed adults were told to pet a rabbit, a turtle or toy animals. The toy animals provided no stress relief. But stroking an animal, regardless of whether it was furry or hard-shelled, relieved stress. This was true even among non-animal lovers.

People with mental health conditions may also see benefits, though more study is needed. Researchers in the UK interviewed 54 adults who had all been diagnosed with mental illnesses including bipolar, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. When asked to rate the importance of their support network, 60% rated their pets as most important, saying they provided distraction from their symptoms and gave them a sense of responsibility.

Animal hospital

Many healthcare providers are embracing this link between wellbeing and animals. In some hospitals, aged care facilities and rehabilitation centres around Australia, animals are regular visitors, bringing much-needed smiles and relief to patients and residents.

Research has shown that pet therapy for the elderly can help to increase social interaction and self esteem. The presence of an animal also benefits those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia by decreasing agitation and improving social behaviours.

How your pet can help others

As a dog owner, volunteering as a pet therapist can be rewarding. Allowing others to meet your pup makes you feel good too.

Sharon Stewart, CEO at Paws Pet Therapy, has seen many pet therapy volunteers come through her doors. Her company supports and trains these volunteers and their pets to deliver therapy visits to people with a range of needs, like people with a disability or dementia.

Practise being a pet parent

But what do you do if you can’t own a pet? How can you still reap the rewards? Anneke van den Broek is founder and CEO of petcare business Rufus & Coco. She says there are several ways to get the health benefits of pet ownership without the long-term commitment.

“There are numerous websites and apps that have made it possible to borrow other people’s pets for anything from an hour to several months,” she says.

“Apps like Pawshake and Mad Paws allow you to pet-sit for a duration that suits your lifestyle. You can walk, pet-sit or house-sit and enjoy the benefits of extra exercise, socialisation and companionship.”

Van den Broek adds that if you have the flexibility to care for a pet a bit longer, organisations such as the RSPCA, Guide Dogs and animal rescue groups are often in need of extra help.

“Without volunteers we couldn’t exist and so we always welcome more. It’s a great way to get hands on with animals and for both parties to enjoy the health benefits.”

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