Your Dog Is A Great Caregiver: Pets Treat Chronic Illnesses

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Therapy Animals: Love, Loyalty, and Companionship

The notion of using pets as therapy for chronic illnesses has become mainstream. Service dogs have long been used to help humans with disabilities ranging from blindness, deafness, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Registered service animals require intensive training and testing to qualify for these programs. In a new twist, it has become popular in recent months to have your pet registered as a ‘therapy animal,’ however anyone who has had a pet will tell you all pets are therapy animals.

Any pet-lover can attest that having a pet is good for you. Whether it’s a dog’s enthusiastic tail wag, a cat’s soothing purr, or the sweet chirps of a parakeet: our pets make us happy. Researchers have taken notice. Why, after a long, terrible day, do we smile when our dog greets us? Why does our anger dissolve with a nuzzle from our cat? Or why is our anxiety relieved as we gaze at our fish tank?

Pets’ Positive Impact on Chronic Illnesses, According to Science

Researchers asking the question, “Why?” have uncovered that pet owners feel good around their pets because their presence positively impacts their humans’ physical health. Generally people who have pets have lower blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate and heart disease risk than those who don’t.

These health benefits stem from a number of factors. For instance, pet owners get additional exercise from playing with and exercising their pets, particularly in the case of dogs who promote an active lifestyle. Additionally, pets provide steady stress relief. The act of petting an animal causes the brain to release oxytocin, the hormone related to stress and anxiety relief, reducing cortisol levels. Beyond cats and dogs, even pets such as reptiles, fish, and birds have this effect on the people who enjoy their company.

Animal-Assisted Interventions for Challenging Disorders

The studies have been small but impactful enough to justify “animal-assisted interventions” -- or pet therapy -- alongside traditional medicine and care.

  • Stroking a rabbit for a short period of time reduces anxiety.
  • Elderly people given crickets in cages were significantly less depressed after 8 weeks.
  • The act of grooming a horse or leading one around a pen has been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms in children.
  • Alzheimer’s patients who dined in front of aquariums filled with brightly colored fish ate more, got better nutrition and were less prone to pacing.
  • Research suggests that when children struggle to read aloud, reading to a dog reduces their anxiety and allows them to practice more frequently and improve.
  • Having a guinea pig in a classroom encourages children with autism to be more social with their peers and reduces their stress and anxiety.

Researchers believe there are a few reasons why they are seeing these astonishing results. The first is that many pets, for example dogs and horses, get people outside. Sun and fresh air will elevate a person’s mood and provide a dose of vitamin D. Vitamin D helps fight depression, cancer, obesity and heart attacks.

There used to be a stigma that pets in hospitals would spread infections. These days it’s rare to find a children’s hospital without an animal program. To the contrary, pets reduce allergies and asthma, and build immunity.

Pets for Treatment of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

The number one reason people are drawn to companion animals is loneliness. Pets provide all people of all ages and abilities with a “friend.” Most children and even adults are more comfortable talking to their pets than they are with other people, despite their pets not understanding a word they’re saying. Pets do not judge or criticize and they are always happy to see you.

It is this universal feeling of comfort, companionship, and acceptance that led to the initial studies of the effects of pets on patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. As these chronic illnesses progress, in addition to severe memory loss these patients:

  • Suffer from loneliness and depression, as they are unable to connect with people and maintain conversations. The depression also affects their appetite and nutrition.
  • Get angry or upset easily, sometimes lashing out at family or caregivers as a result of confusion and frustration. These mood swings continue to get more severe.
  • Pace and wander. Considered in part due to a physical manifestation of stress and anxiety.
  • Have delusions, such as thinking a caregiver is trying to hurt them. These delusions eventually progress into hallucinations.

Many assisted-living facilities now work with trained handlers to offer therapy animal visits to their patients. From a medical standpoint it is vital for these patients to exercise as many senses as they can each day. Being able to pet and connect with an animal is both tactile and cognitively stimulating.

Cognitively stimulating because the presence of a dog or pet often brings about positive associations, tapping into happy, familiar memories. Being in the company of pets has also been shown to reignite the interest of patients in the world around them, drawing them out of their shells of depression and loneliness. This is especially true of resident therapy dogs -- dogs who live at the facility full-time -- where patients and staff work together to care for the animal, giving patients a sense of purpose.

The connection that pet owners share with their pets truly is remarkable, but animals seem to provide us with much more in return. As these studies continue to grow, it is likely that animal therapy will only continue to become more mainstream in the practice of primary care for chronic illnesses.

Oculus Health enhances primary care delivery and puts quality, accessible health care in the hands of patients suffering from chronic illnesses in the United States. Learn more about what you can do to achieve excellence in healthcare at blog.oculushealth.com.

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