A smiling woman sits in a chair while a friendly dog perches next to her on a footrest.

The healing power of animals

It has long been known that people and animals have a profound connection with one another. Everything from dogs and cats, to rabbits and even tropical fish become treasured friends and family members—transforming our physical lives and bolstering our emotional wellbeing.

Science behind it

For hundreds of years, many health professionals have known that animals can have a very soothing effect on people living with physical disabilities or experiencing mental health issues. For instance, Sigmund Freud documented noticeable changes in how patients responded to therapy when an animal was present during the session. Freud would often bring his dog Jo-Fi along with him, and he began to do so more regularly when he realised the positive impact on many of his patients.

Today, there is even more evidence to suggest that the interaction between an animal and a person can offer numerous benefits.

Mental:

  • Lifts a person’s spirits and lessens depression.
  • Lowers feelings of isolation.
  • Encourages communication and socialisation, reducing loneliness.
  • Provides comfort and reduces anxiety.
  • Relieves boredom.
  • Creates motivation for a person to recover faster from illness.

Physical:

  • Lowers blood pressure and improves cardiovascular health.
  • Lowers general physical pain.
  • Releases calming endorphins (oxytocin). Petting an animal can often create a physical relaxation response, and many health professionals have used this technique to reduce the amount of medication needed by some patients.

Pet therapy organisations

There are many different groups that can help create a pet connection.

Pets As Therapy are a charity that strongly believes in the healing power of animals, and their approach is a holistic one. Over the years they have built up a large community of volunteers who can meet one specific requirement: they own a cat or dog with the right temperament (as determined through an assessment). The volunteer will bring the pet to suitable venues, such as a residential care home, hospital, hospice or day care centre. Residents will then be able to enjoy the experience of engaging with the animal and bonding with it.

Critterish Allsorts believe in Critter Assisted Therapy of a less traditional nature. They will happily visit a variety of venues and bring along some of the creatures they keep, such as snakes, lizards, spiders and much more!

Therapet is the leading service for animal assisted therapy in Scotland. They work in association with the Canine Concern Scotland Trust. If you live in Scotland and are interested in the benefits of animal therapy, it’s worth looking at their website to see if any volunteers are located nearby.

Borrow My Doggy works on a much more casual level. This is a resource which aims to connect owners of dogs with people living nearby who would like to babysit a dog for a temporary period of time. It may be just an afternoon per week you’d like to offer someone (it’s all done on an individual basis). Just sign up to the website, type in your postcode and start looking at the dogs available in your area. You’ll need a bit of patience to study the options and ensure you find the right dog for you, but the website is very simple to use. (A small annual fee applies if you would like to be able to respond to messages sent to other users on the website.)

TIP: This option requires a little more responsibility as you will be looking after someone else’s pet, rather than the owner joining you on the visit. The idea is that you get all the benefits of having a pet (companionship, exercise etc.) but without the restrictions (such as financial commitments). If you like the idea but don’t think you could take on the responsibility alone, perhaps consider asking a friend or family member to join you.

Volunteer

If you would like to volunteer your pet for animal assisted therapy, you can find lots of information on how to go about doing this through the Pets As Therapy website.

So pet lovers of the world, unite! In many cases, amazing changes can occur to people’s mental and physical health both during and after these visits—regardless of how much time is spent and what kind of animal is involved.

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