“There’s no love like a dog’s love” is one of my mother’s favorite sayings. I, however, always felt a little displaced coming behind the dog.
But now that I have sweet Mollie, my Australian Shepherd, I get it. Connections between humans and animals can form on a deep and primitive level. Pets don’t judge us, are often free with their affection, and can love unconditionally. All too often, people just aren’t as steadfast and reliable.
For all these reasons and more, the American Veterinary Medical Association promotes animal-assisted therapy to improve physical, emotion, social, and cognitive functioning in humans. That’s why pets are becoming commonplace in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and even assisted living settings.
One of the national leaders in demonstrating and promoting animal-assisted therapy, activities, and education is Pet Partners, founded in 1977. The nonprofit organization has more than 15,000 therapy animal teams across all 50 states. In 2016, Pet Partners teams visited more than three million people in need.
Sonya Manibusan, Manager of Volunteer Services at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, knows the Pet Partner program is beyond measure.
“How do you quantify the impact on a patient, who has no family and is alone in the hospital, whose only visitor is a four-legged animal? Or the pregnant mom, whose unborn baby’s heart can’t stop racing? When a dog enters the room, the baby’s heart rate slows, and so does the mom’s,” she said. “The impact of Pet Partner dogs and their handlers is magical, not only for the patients, but also for the staff.”
Pet Partners teams interact with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), seniors living with Alzheimer’s, students with literacy challenges, patients in recovery, people with intellectual disabilities, and even those who are approaching end of life. The impact of these interactions is felt millions of times a year.
Studies have shown that therapeutic visits with animals have many benefits. Positive interactions with animals increase the body’s levels of dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals help us remain calm in stressful situations by reducing anxiety and warding off depression.
Furthermore, a 2016 study at The City University of New York found that petting a dog or cat not only teaches us to relax, but also releases oxytocin, a neurochemical that decreases the stress hormone cortisol. Stroking an animal helps lower blood pressure by 50%, and even reduces anxiety and PTSD symptoms.
Pet therapy animals react to our moods, and give us immediate feedback. We can all learn a lot about love, loyalty, and unconditional acceptance from our four-legged friends.
Kathryn MacDonell is the Geriatric Program Manager at THD. She values alternative therapies and compassionate care for older adults. An advocate of education and research, she dedicates time to the Alzheimer’s Advisory Board.