The presence of companion animals has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety levels. This type of psychotherapy is known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT). A study found that a single session of animal-assisted therapy significantly reduced state anxiety for hospitalized psychiatric patients, whereas therapeutic recreation did not. Patients in the animal-assisted therapy group also had lower posttreatment scores on a standard anxiety measure.
Patients who experience anxiety due to their condition often find relief through animal-assisted therapy at Kairos Wellness Collective. A pet’s nonjudgmental affection and attention can help them focus on positive thoughts and feelings. In one controlled clinical trial, a visit from a therapy dog reduced a patient’s heart rate and blood pressure. This was demonstrated through systolic pulmonary artery pressure and pulmonary capillary wedge pressure, which showed significant decreases during and after the interaction with the dog and handler. Another study found that animal-assisted therapy significantly reduced self-reported anxiety symptoms in college students.
Boosts Immune System
Interacting with friendly animals, like dogs or horses, releases oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone.” This helps people relax and lowers their stress levels. It also boosts the immune system so patients can recover faster and better. Therapy animal handlers bring their pets to hospitals, nursing homes, hospice programs, schools, and shelters to allow patients to pet and stroke them. This reduces emotional arousal, improves mood, and boosts social skills for individuals with conditions that isolate them from relationships and everyday interactions. Stroking, touching, or petting an animal is enjoyable and nonjudgmental. Even hardened criminals in prison show long-term changes when they experience mutual affection with dogs in their cells. In addition, the interaction distracts from painful or unpleasant feelings and encourages movement, easing depression.
Animals provide judgment-free interactions and can help people relax. They can also distract from racing thoughts and reduce feelings of shame, guilt, or fear. Additionally, pet-assisted therapy releases oxytocin, encouraging participants to open up during therapy sessions. One study found that animals helped reduce the state anxiety levels of hospitalized psychiatric patients. The patients in the study completed the State Anxiety Inventory (SAS), a self-report measure of their current anxiety levels, before and after each session. In addition to reducing anxiety, animal-assisted therapy promotes socialization and increases self-esteem. It can also boost participants’ ability to participate in other therapies, such as exposure therapy. However, therapists should consider veterinary considerations, infectious control policies, and liability concerns before incorporating animal-assisted therapy into their practice.
Reduces Medication Needs
Many studies show that the human-animal bond can reduce anxiety symptoms. For instance, patients who feel hostility or disregard from other humans may find comfort in the nonjudgmental attention of a therapy dog. Petting animals promotes the release of oxytocin, serotonin, and prolactin, hormones that help to elevate moods. A study showed that women who watched a traumatic video with a dog present reported lower levels of anxiety than those who watched the same video without a dog.
Moreover, a therapy animal acts as an engaging topic of conversation between client and therapist. A 2019 study found that subjects who participated in an animal-assisted therapy session and a therapeutic recreation session saw more significant reductions in their anxiety than those who only participated in the recreation sessions.
Increases Physical Activity
Animal-assisted therapy helps people push through physical therapy exercises that can be uncomfortable. The oxytocin released by interacting with welcoming animals also impacts the immune system, increasing pain thresholds and speeding healing. In one study, researchers gave psychiatric hospital patients the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory before and after two 30-minute therapeutic sessions—one with a dog, the other without a dog. Participants reported significantly less anxiety after interacting with the animal than in a session with just the therapist. Spending time with a nonjudgmental, loving animal is an automatic mood enhancer. Moreover, interactions with the animal provide a topic of conversation to initiate the connection between therapist and patient. This reduces resistance to therapy and facilitates positive outcomes in all therapy settings.