TheraPAWtic Benefits: How can our pets be helpful to us when dealing with distress?
It was a Thursday night at 7:15 pm. I just got home from a long day at work and nothing had been going right all day, in neither my personal nor my professional life. After I realized I came home to an empty house (no other humans), I immediately started to cry. I sank to the ground gasping for air while I felt myself starting to hyperventilate. About 10 seconds later I heard the familiar sound of nails clip-clopping on the floor coming in my direction. In between tears I looked up to find my yellow Labrador Retriever trotting towards me with his huge (mostly destructive) wagging tail and a huge smile on his face. He came right over and sat down in front of me and started to literally lick my tears from my face. He then laid down in my lap (all 75 pounds of him) and continued to lie there until I calmed down about 10 minutes later.
No matter the day, you come home from long hours of work or other obligations and without fail, they will be right there, ready to greet you with a waggy tail and a wet nose. For a lot of us, animals are a huge part of our lives. Any pet owner will tell you that having a fur babe or two is more rewarding than not. The level of love and loyalty that animals hold is something that humans have never been really able to understand, let alone reach themselves in their own personal relationships.
The domestication of animals started over 10,000 years ago. Evidence shows that dogs were among the first animals to become domesticated. Over time, this has allowed dogs to evolve to become acutely in tune with humans and their behaviors and emotions. Dogs try to read and pick up on a person’s tone of voice, body language, gestures and facial expressions. With this ability, dogs are able to comfort humans when they are stressed or upset. Even though domesticated dogs do not really have the stressors and day to day troubles that humans deal with, they still always seem to make the best of the day. They provide endless amounts of companionship, love, affection and an overall feeling of comfort.
So what are the benefits exactly?
Pet therapy has been able to provide a range of physical and mental benefits for humans. ANY human can be positively influenced by interacting with a therapy animal. For our mental health, animals can decrease anxiety and depression, increase motivation, bridge communication gaps, and reduce loneliness and boredom. Physical benefits of therapy animals are they have been scientifically proven to lower and stabilize blood pressure, improve cardio vascular health, and can help reduce the risk of heart disease. A significant benefit of a therapy animal is the aspect of sensory touch relief. Without even having an animal, both touch and movement are two great ways to cope and manage stress and anxiety. Petting a therapy animal alone produces an immediate relaxation response to the body. The act of petting a therapy dog can slow down breathing rates to reduce anxiety symptoms and prevent panic attacks. Also, when you pet a therapy dog, or any animal, it releases certain hormones such as Phenyl Ethylamine; which has the same effect as chocolate does on a human. Animals give us a reason to get up in the morning. They give us an external motivation to take care of something other than ourselves, and a sense of purpose. For those who own a dog or pet, it forces them to get up and their bodies and get exercise, which is already proven to increase the overall emotional well-being.
But how exactly is all of this proven?
It hasn’t been until recently that studies have started to scientifically research the link between human and animal interaction and the benefits a bond with an animal can provide. Back in 1961, Dr. Boris Levinson was the first clinician to introduce the concept when he witnessed the benefits of pet therapy after accidentally leaving a dog with a troubled child and witnessing the communication between the child and dog. Dr. Levinson found that having a dog present during talk therapy allows the client to be more willing to disclose difficult experiences and help increase the client’s communication and self-esteem.
In an article that was published in 2012, researchers explored the psychological and psycho physiological effects of human-animal interaction. Through a combination of over 60 different controlled experiments, scientists were able to collect significant evidence that shows a correlation between human-animal interaction and the decrease of certain hormones such as cortisol. This is the body’s main stress hormone, which I also known as nature’s built in alarm system. Several of the experiments found that the mere presence of a therapy dog can help reduce blood pressure and heart rates in study participants.
So how can you incorporate the benefits of animal therapy in your own life?
Not everyone is able to own and care for a pet, but there are other ways in which you experience the health benefits of being around animals. Some ways are to volunteer at your local animal shelter or offer to take a neighbor or friend’s dog for a walk. More recently, there have been more organizations and agencies that are open to and offer therapy dogs as a part of their program. So ask around and see if there is anywhere near you that offers it. Any time spent with an animal, whether its five minutes a day or all day everyday can help your overall sense of happiness and emotional well-being.