Increasingly, animals are being used in the medical field as companions and healers for those suffering from health problems ranging from cancer to heart disease to stress.
For example, six-year old Iris Grace Halmshaw and two-year old Thula are like sisters. They go on adventures, play with toys and take baths together. Wherever Iris goes, Thula follows. They sound like the best of friends—strikingly, there is only one difference. Iris is a child diagnosed with autism spectrum, and Thula is her therapy cat.
Therapy pets are becoming a vital tool in the successful treatment of these conditions, used to help improve a patient’s mental, social, emotional and physical abilities.
“I have firsthand experience with this. Whenever I am stressed out with schoolwork or other issues, playing and relaxing with my pet dog greatly improves my mood and makes me happier,” Freshman Jonathan Nguyen said.
There are many significant benefits to the mental health of a patient after interacting with a friendly animal. According to PAWS for People, pet therapy is proven to lift spirits, decrease risk of depression, provide comfort, enhance social skills, lower anxiety and overall reduce a patient’s loneliness.
For example, before Thula arrived, Iris absolutely hated the sensation of water or clothing touching her skin—as a result, taking baths and getting dressed were uncomfortable and difficult tasks for her. However, water-loving Thula jumped straight into the bathtub, convincing Iris to follow. Soon, Iris took baths and put on clothes with incredible ease, thanks to her therapy cat.
Not only do therapy pets provide mental health benefits, they also offer numerous physical health benefits as well. Pet therapy patients tend to have a lower blood pressure, an increased tolerance for pain and a release of oxytocin, a hormone that has a calming effect. Remarkably, the act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response, which can significantly reduce the amount of medication a child needs to take.
“Honestly, it is so incredible how a pet can literally replace some forms of medication. It is a win-win situation—the patient and their family gets a new household member, while the patient simultaneously reaps notable benefits from the friendship. Now, I feel like every family should have a pet,” Sophomore Curtis Chan said.
The only concern with pet therapy, particularly in hospitals, is safety and sanitation. However, most facilities that utilize animal therapy have rigid protocol to ensure that pets are clean, vaccinated and well trained for interaction. Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has never received a report of infection from animal therapy. As long as gentle and friendly breeds of animals are used, complication rates are a low, according to Mayo Clinic.
The deep bond that humans innately share with dogs and other pets has made animals a friendly and particularly helpful alternative for medicinal therapy in ill individuals.