Pet Project: The Healing Power of Animals

From UCLA Health -Healthy Years –  June 2015, Volume 12-Number 6,Helping older adults lead happier, healthier lives

Animal Therapy Relieves Stress, Anxiety, and can help you live longer.

A dog is man’s [and woman’s] best friend, especially when it comes to good health. Research continues to show that regular interactions with dog, or any pet or animal that matter, can have immediate and long lasting impact on your emotional well-being.

Animal, or pet, therapy, is one of the easiest and most fulfilling means to combat the depression, anxiety, and loneliness that so often confront older adults,” says Erin Rice, director of the animal assistance therapy program for UCLA Health.

The Science of Animals

Animal therapy is commonly used in hospitals and retirement centers to help patients cope with the stress of treatment and recovery. The interactions usually involve dogs and cats in either individual or group settings. “The visits often last anywhere from five to 30 minutes and can involve anything from petting or giving treats to just sitting on the bed with the person,” says Rice.

The effects can be quite powerful.  Recent research from Mount Sinai Hospital found that therapy dogs can have a significant impact on the well-being of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy.  In addition to facing extreme fatigue from the treatments, they battle constant stress and fear.

In the six-week study, 42 patients received daily 15-to-20-minute animal assisted visits.  After the animal therapy, the patients reported a significant improvement in their-quality of life, and the presence of the therapy dogs helped them over-come anxiety in order to complete their treatments.

What happens when you interact with animals? Reseachers point to increased levels of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” produced by the brain that is connected to stronger social bonding.

A review of 69 studies on human-animal interactions showed that contact with animals, especially one’s own pet, increases oxytocin production, which counters elevated levels of stress and anxiety.  The results also suggested that while single meetings with animals trigger the oxytocin effects, stable relationships, like pet ownership or at least regular interactions, are linked to more potent and longer-lasting effects.

Research also has found animal encounters increase production of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical that helps maintain mood balance, which is why petting animals can have a calming effect.

Finding your own pet therapy

You can replicate the same mind-soothing effects of animal therapy on your own.

While adopting a dog or cat is one way – What you should know.

How much care does the dog or cat need? Some breeds or mix of breeds may need extra medical care.

How do they respond to other animals and people? For example, some may not like men or people in hats. This could be because of prior abuse or neglect.

What training needs are required, like house training or learning to walk on a leash?

What is the animal’s energy level? Does it match your mobility level and lifestyle?

Can your budget afford pet food, grooming, annual vaccinations, flea and tick prevention, etc?

If you are not ready for that responsibility, you can seek out other means of animal interaction.

For instance, inquire with your local senior community center and libraries about public animal therapy programs they may host. Another option is to volunteer with community partners of animal therapy organizations like Pet Partners [].  Therapy Dogs International [], where you can volunteer to help with animal therapy training.

“Franchise store like PetSmart and Petco also host adoption days when you can mingle with animals.” says Rice. “You don’t have to adopt one, but it is a great way to interact.”

You can always volunteer at local animal shelters, rescue organizations, or even horse stables. “This can help you spend time with different types of animals, like birds, horses, and other marine and wildlife,” says Rice.  ” You help clean, feed, brush, or just hang out with them.”

And don’t forget to lend a hand to a friend or neighbor who has a pet. “Offer to walk their dog when they are at work, or care for their cat when they go on vacation.” says Rice. “You can help them and their pet can help you.”

Dog Walkers Are More Active and Social

While any kind of animal interaction is healthy, dog ownership can keep you more active. A study from Michigan State University discovered that people who owned and walked their dogs were 34 percent more likely to meet the recommended 150 minutes of weekly physical activity. One reason is that dogs force you to walk more.  A 2013 study found that dog owners/dog walkers spent nearly 50 percent more total walking time than two non-dog-walking groups.  If you need to strengthen your social life, dog walkers have been found to converse more with people when out with their pet.  And if you have suffered a heart attack, a dog may help you live longer.  A study by the National Institutes of Health examined 421 adults who suffered heart attacks and found that after a year, those who were dog owners were more likely to still be alive compared with non-dog owners, regardless of the severity of their heart attacks.

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