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The Healing Power of Animals


We’ve all seen those highly trained, four-legged helpers assist a blind person in navigating a street crossing.

What’s new: Scientists now are discovering that dogs and other types of animals can actually help promote the healing process in people with a wide range of medical conditions. Sound far-fetched?

While cozying up to an adoring family pet is widely known to have psychological benefits, popular domestic animals, including dogs and cats, are now helping in a different way. They are playing an important role in the treatment plans for stroke patients and others with such conditions as heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition, patients who have cancer, mental-health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and individuals with chronic pain have been shown to benefit from treatment that involves the use of animals.

So-called animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is also increasingly incorporating an even broader range of animals. For example, horseback riding is being used by people with health problems such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Even rabbits, llamas, birds and other types of animals are being used to promote physical, emotional and social well-being.


Support for the therapeutic effects of animals continues to grow…

Landmark findings: Among 92 patients hospitalized for a heart condition or heart attack, only 6% of pet (mostly dog) owners died within one year of discharge, versus 28% of people who did not own pets. In a study of 48 New York City stockbrokers, those who owned a dog or a cat had half the increase in blood pressure associated with stressful situations as those without pets.

More recently, research focusing specifically on AAT suggests that interacting with animals may have salutary effects because it increases levels of the hormone oxytocin, which is believed to have powerful effects on the body’s ability to heal and grow new cells.


With AAT, the animals are not there to simply play with the patients. Instead, the animal, whose temperament has been evaluated by a national animal therapy organization, helps a patient achieve specific treatment goals.

For example, a physical therapist may use a dog (owned by a volunteer who has participated in training or, in some cases, the facility where the therapy takes place) to help a stroke patient regain the ability to stand and walk. The stroke patient may walk the dog for short distances (the dog owner may use a double-handle leash to accompany the dog and patient).

For people with physical disabilities due to conditions such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, horseback riding can help strengthen muscles in the trunk and loosen contracted joints.

AAT can help reduce agitation and depression in Alzheimer’s patients, and it can curb a cancer patient’s perception of pain and fatigue.

Patients who have AAT receive individualized treatment plans with the animal…sessions are scheduled at set intervals…and the health-care provider makes notes on the progress that is made by the patient during each session. In some cases, AAT may be covered as part of a physical therapy program.


If you would like to try AAT, speak to your doctor. If he/she gives you the go-ahead, contact Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society), 425-679-5500, This nonprofit organization, which registers therapy animals and their owners, can help you locate a facility that offers AAT.

People who are not able to leave their homes may also receive AAT. A family member or health-care provider should contact Pet Partners for a referral to a trained animal owner who provides AAT on a volunteer basis. In these instances, therapy visits should be arranged and overseen by a home health-care provider.

Important: If you have reduced immunity—for example, due to an autoimmune disease or if you are on chemotherapy, high-dose steroids or other immune-suppressive- medications—AAT may not be appropriate for you.

Animals that participate in AAT are required to be clean and well groomed and must undergo a thorough veterinary checkup. However, patients with reduced immunity often are advised to limit unnecessary contact with animals—and humans—to help them avoid exposure to infectious agents.

Source: Bill Benda, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Big Sur Health Center and Mee Memorial Hospital in King City, California. He serves as associate editor of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal and has coauthored several book chapters and dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles on different facets of complementary medicine, including animal therapy. Date: December 1, 2012 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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