Pets Are G-r-r-reat for Your Health!

Pet-facilitated therapy promotes health and well-being


At first, we thought that the dog has been (wo)man's best friend for 12,000 years. Then we found out that Native Americans domesticated dogs 30,000 years ago! Thirty thousand years makes the American Revolution seem like it happened yesterday, and Chappelle's Show seem like it ended 45 minutes ago.

Today, pets are used as therapy in various health care settings.  Much research has been done on the subject with evidence suggesting that pet therapy promotes physical, psychological and emotional health.

History of pet-facilitated therapy

Although not as ancient as the domestication of animals, pet-facilitated therapy (animal-assisted therapy) has a long history.  Pet-facilitated therapy is defined as the therapeutic introduction of animals to either individual patients or groups of patients via their environment. Alternatively, pet-facilitated therapy has been defined as an applied science with the aim to have animals help humans. 

In the ninth century, Belgians made animal therapy available to people with disabilities. By 1792, the York Retreat, a Quaker organization, was formed. The York Retreat treated people with mental illness using a combination of courtyard exercise, gardening, and access to birds and bunny rabbits. 

Florence Nightengale was also a vocal proponent of pet exposure as therapy, with other nurses subsequently paving the way for the practice.  In 1919, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K.

Lane suggested using dogs to help treat patients in the psychiatric unit of St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington. In 1942, the U.S. military also enlisted the help of dogs to aid with the care of U.S. veterans.

By 1961, Dr. Boris Levinson, a child psychiatrist, introduced modern medical audiences to pet therapy.

  One day, Levinson noticed that one of his child patients bonded with his dog during his momentary absence. This observation laid the foundation for his research and message that the pet patient bond can be expanded to include the therapist. Throughout the 1970s, Drs. Sam and Elizabeth Corson generalized Levinson's research to include adolescents and adults. 

During the 1980s, nursing researchers started to take an interest in pet therapy. And, by the 1990s, the research environment became fulminant with an explosion of research into the topic. Most of this research focused on pets bonding with elderly at home and in long-term care facilities. Research also focused on pet therapy in cardiac and psychiatric health-care environments. Animal exposure as therapy has also been studied in the form of pet ownership/

The psychology of pet-facilitated therapy

Pets are friendly and affectionate companions. The psychology of the human-animal bond is nuanced.  Research shows that attachment is an important aspect of well-being, and this attachment need not be human--relationships with animals are just as fulfilling and not nearly as complicated.


We often choose and even breed pets for their ability to initiate and reciprocate bonding and attachment behaviors. However, pet therapy not only involves cats and dogs but also includes, guinea pigs, rabbits, birds, fish and even dolphins.  

Pets can help develop various healthful behaviors:

  • exercise
  • play and laughter
  • companionship and bonding (a pet serves as a source of consistency, security, and care)
  • petting and observation
  • emotional stability
  • nonjudgmental acceptance
  • promotion of social happiness and harmony
  • relaxation

The benefits of pet-facilitated therapy

It's a safe bet that the benefits of pet therapy are myriad and most likely unquantifiable and untold in a complete sense. Moreover, the subject is complicated to study, and much of the available research is burdened by poor research design including small sample sizes and lack of randomized-control trials.  Nevertheless, scientists generally support suggestions that pet-therapy benefits health.

  • Pet-assisted therapy has been of benefit to people with depression, children with autism, and people with cardiovascular disease.
  • Studies show that animals help promote physical, social and emotional health in the elderly.  In particular, the health of elderly people is tied to loss, change, isolation and marginalization by society, and pets have been shown to attenuate feelings of solitude and depression and improve social relationships and general quality of life.
  • Some research has linked pets to improve physical health, lower blood pressure, reduced risk of cardiac problems, and improvement in other general health measures.

Pet-mediated therapy: concerns about hygiene

Some people have expressed concerns about whether animals used as therapy can transfer the disease to patients (zoonosis). This concern is why many institutions don't use birds as animal-assisted therapy with people in immunocompromised states (think AIDS). Some people have also voiced concerns over allergy, bites or scratches caused by pets. 

All pets who lend their time to therapy must be checked out by a veterinarian regularly and be closely supervised by a nurse, trainer, and other personnel. Furthermore, strict hand washing must be practiced by both health-care employees and patients.

Despite concerns about pet hygiene in clinical settings, the use of pets as therapy is overall a very clean practice that puts the patient at little risk. In other words, you or a loved one should rest assured that pets used as therapy are likely free of disease and safe to interact with.

People with all types of illness,disability, social stressors and emotional stressors benefit from exposure to pets. Whether it be an older person in the company of her dog or cat or pet programs that enable residents of long-term facilities to interact with animals, such therapy is personal and emotionally fulfilling. It's also non-invasive and personal, a win-win for both patients and health-care providers.

Selected Sources

Article titled "An exploration of the potential benefits of pet-facilitated therapy" by S. Brodie and F. Biley published in The Journal of Clinical Nursing (1999).

Article titled "Pet therapy and institutionalized elderly: A study on 144 cognitively unimpaired subjects" by G. Colombo and co-authors published in The Archives of Gerentology and Geriatrics (2006)

Article titled "Pet Therapy Research: A Historical Review" by S. Hooker and co-authors published in Holistic Nursing Practice (2002)

Article titled " Animal-assisted therapy for people with dementia" by N. Motomura and co-authors from the journal Psychogeriatrics (2004)

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