Pet therapy is a type of therapy that involves guided interactions between humans and a trained animal. The animal's handler is part of the interaction as well. Pet therapy is used as a mental health treatment designed to help individuals cope with or recover from mental disorders or other health problems. The most commonly used animals in pet therapy are cats and dogs. With that said, horses, guinea pigs, fish, and other animals meeting screening criteria can also be part of the practice. The type of animal used depends on an individual's goals and treatment plan. Some practitioners call pet therapy animal-assisted therapy. Each patient will have slightly different therapy goals based on their needs.
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One major health benefit related to pet therapy is the release of endorphins during interactions with animals. Endorphins are chemicals that, when released by the brain, make individuals feel good. The way endorphins function is by binding to the opioid receptors in the nervous system, producing a sense of euphoria and acting like painkillers. Actual opioid medications come with a high potential for addiction and other side effects. Meanwhile, visiting with a dog or cat can produce a similar effect without any of the potential drawbacks. This is because the nervous system is producing its own endorphins rather than introducing artificial ones, which can throw off an individual's neurochemistry. The body's natural endorphins help individuals fight off stress and pain. In many cases, they are referred to as 'feel-good' chemicals. The majority of endorphins are made in the pituitary and hypothalamus glands. Patients with fibromyalgia and depression might have naturally lower endorphins, so they are good targets for pet therapy.
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Lowers Blood Pressure
Studies have shown blood pressure lowers while individuals interact with dogs and cats. There are also studies indicating pet ownership can have a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system. Individuals who owned pets, particularly dogs, had a lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease. Multiple studies have also shown dog owners tend to have a lower overall blood pressure than those who don't own dogs. In terms of pet therapy, this is likely because dogs have a calming and positive effect on humans. The presence of a dog helps introduce positive emotions and reduce stress in the body. Multiple studies have been done showing stress is reduced when individuals pet dogs. For this reason, dogs are often used as therapy animals for patients with serious anxiety and high stress. They might even be used for individuals who have cardiovascular issues without having any documented mental health issues.
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Decreases Anxiety And Depression
Researchers have identified a phenomenon they call the 'pet effect,' which helps decrease depression, stress, and anxiety in individuals all over the world. Eighty million households in the United States have a pet. For individuals without pets, pet therapy can produce some of the same positive effects, as can volunteering at shelters and animal rescues. When a survey was done of pet owners throughout the United States, seventy-four percent said they experienced improvements in their mental health due to pet ownership. Seventy-five percent of the pet owners in the survey said a family member or friend's mental health had been improved through their pet ownership. There's an entire field of study called human-animal bond research that studies the documented health benefits from pet interaction. Positive interactions between humans and animals have been shown to make physiological changes that reduce depression, anxiety, fear, and stress. In addition, there's a measurable increase in the oxytocin found in the brain. These chemicals help stimulate feelings of warmth, love, and companionship.
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One of the strongest mental health benefits of pet therapy is it reduces loneliness. Owning a pet, many say, is the most powerful way of reducing loneliness, though pet therapy in a clinical setting can create similar effects. Cat and dog owners can attest that cats and dogs each have their own personality. In addition, dogs have been bred to be attuned to the emotions and behavior of humans. Though we aren't able to speak to dogs and cats as much as we might want to, we can still communicate with them. Individuals who suffer from depression say that sometimes having an animal to feed gives them a reason to get up in the morning. In addition, the unconditional love pets show can help boost an individual's self-esteem and overall mood. Even when individuals are having trouble maintaining the human relationships in their life, a pet will be there for them. Many individuals say pet therapy helps them feel connected to the world.
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Improved Cardiovascular Health
Ongoing pet therapy has been linked to improved cardiovascular health. In addition to interactions with animals lowering blood pressure, individuals who spend a lot of time around animals have been shown to have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease. There have been multiple studies showing dog owners, in particular, tend to have better overall heart health. In one study of dog owners in the Czech Republic, the dog owners tended to be younger and have a higher likelihood of smoking. At the same time, the dog owners were less likely to be obese, had better blood fat and sugar levels, and were more active. Some of these positive effects might be because of how being around dogs lowers blood pressure. Other effects might be because dogs need to be walked, which encourages the humans surrounding them to be more active. Whatever the reason, spending time around dogs may improve cardiovascular health.