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This one interaction can make us happier and healthier

Tracy Woolrich's picture
Our pets can also make us happier and healthier.

Those of us who are pet owners know they make us feel happy. Now scientific research is showing that our pets can also make us healthier. Once only seen in Nursing Homes and Hospice settings, animal assisted therapy is growing and can be found in hospitals, schools, psychiatric facilities and even jails.

A study published in the American Journal of Recreation Therapy has identified the perceived benefits of animal assisted therapy (AAT). It specifically looked at outcomes for anxiety, pain, communication, and cognition among patients waiting for treatment in a large urban cancer center. It was accomplished using a survey of 75 patients and 5 family members. The results indicated that 78% would like to take part in AAT. An overwhelming 89% felt it would help make time go by more quickly with 71% feeling it would reduce pain. Now this is just what people perceive the outcomes could be. Now imagine it in real life.

Here in the Tampa Bay/Clearwater area of Florida, we have many facilities (nursing homes, hospitals, group homes, schools) that either allows animal interaction via “in house” visits or field trips. They even visit horse farms and aquariums. We are lucky enough to be the home of the now famous dolphin Winter, who continues to work successfully with individuals with all sorts of disabilities. Inspiration at it’s finest.

At Morton Plant Hospital they have a pet therapy program of over 50 animals. That program was started in 1991 by Mary Lou Warn and her dog Sumi. The animals that work at the hospital go through a 3 month program through Project PUP or Pets Uplifting People. The training allows for the animals and the handlers to know what to do, what not do and how react to different scenarios. The animals, their handlers and the patients all benefit from the interactions.

Ruth Anne Achterhof, a volunteer coordinator with the program, said that dogs have been known to calm people’s fears, lower blood pressure, and of course put smiles on the faces of those who come in contact with them.

“Some people call them ‘furry children,’” Achterhof said. “Sometimes they are treated like rock stars by patients and hospital staff.”

She recounts a story in which a family was in a waiting room as a relative underwent surgery. When Oliver the dog walked in, their sadness turned to smiles.

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The use of pets in healthcare settings dates back more than 150 years. Yet it was not until the late 1970s that researchers started to look at outcomes from a scientific prospect.
In 1980 a study found that individuals that owned pets lived longer than those who didn't. Another study found that the act of petting one's own pet could reduce blood pressure.

I personally can attest to this as I have a Rex bunny. He is considered a Velveteen Rabbit and has the thickest and softest fur you can imagine. I work all day in a Neurological Intensive Care Unit and the stress there some days is nearly intolerable. Yet, within 10 minutes of sitting with my bunny, I can feel my shoulders loosen and my heart rate slow down. For me he is my therapy animal.

Rebecca Johnson, a nurse at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, has been studying interactions between animals and people. She believes we feel happier when working with animals because of the release of Oxytocin."That is very beneficial for us," says Johnson. "Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting." which, Johnson says, may be one of the ways that humans bond with other humans as well as animals over time.

In addition to bonding, Oxytocin has been found to help autism. In a 1998 study, autistic repetitive behaviors were decreased when Oxytocin was administered. Another study in 2007 showed how Oxytocin helped autistic adults acknowledge the emotional importance of speech intonation.
Another study finding in regards to Oxytocin is the ability to increase trust and reduce fear. In a “risky investment game”, individuals given oxytocin nasally displayed “the highest level of trust” twice as often as the control group that received a placebo.

The National Institutes of Health has recently created a program to examine human-animal interaction. It will investigate among other things, the effects of animals on health and their ability to reduce disease. It’s time is overdue but welcomed.

Take home message:

Even if it seems obvious to those of us that are animal lovers, it is important to have the scientific research to back us up. Once there is scientific data proving that there are positive outcomes, both emotionally and physically, you will see more and more human-animal interaction opportunities in hospitals, clinics, schools, jails, etc. Basically anywhere there is stress, whether physically or emotionally, an animal can help to relieve it.

Assisted Therapy in the Oncology Waiting Room.Buettner, Linda L.; Wang, YingChen; Stevens, Kaitlin; Jessup, Hannah; Magrinat, Gustav C. American Journal of Recreation Therapy.
2011; 10(4): 25-34.

Hollander E, Bartz J, Chaplin W et al. (2007). “Oxytocin increases retention of social cognition in autism”. Biol Psychiatry 61

Modahl C, Green L, Fein D et al. (1998). “Plasma oxytocin levels in autistic children”. Biol Psychiatry 43 (4): 270–7.