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What Is Pet Therapy?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Research shows that visiting with a pet can reduce stress symptoms, lower blood pressure temporarily, increase sensory stimulation, and even lengthen a person’s life expectancy. Pet therapy is a general term that encompasses many therapeutic activities involving animals as companions or occasional visitors to the sick, elderly, or mentally ill. Because animals provide unconditional acceptance, pet therapy can be comforting and can also distract the sick or the aged from their illnesses or problems.

In areas that are often sterile and lonely, such as hospitals or nursing homes, a pet therapy program can bring screened animals and human volunteers to make visits. These visits can be soothing for the patients or residents, because people tend to be nurturing around animals. When participating in pet therapy, some patients recall fond memories about their own pets. These types of visits are shown to positively affect disposition and increase social interaction among patients and residents.

Other research has shown that heart patients who either own a pet or are paired with a pet following discharge from the hospital tend to heal faster and survive longer. Most likely this is due to the combination of a sense of purpose and the fact that having a pet can lower stress. The pet does not have to be a dog or cat; it can be a rabbit, fish, parakeet, or other animal.

Many pet therapy programs exist to train, coordinate, and place pets that have been behaviorally and medically screened in schools, medical centers, and homes for the elderly and troubled teenagers. Pet therapy can have a positive effect on a resident or patient’s physical health, as well as on his or her emotional health by reducing loneliness and creating a sense of purpose. Some animals in a pet therapy program may have specific tasks, such as “listening” to a patient as he or she has a psychological counseling session or fetching a ball for a patient who is receiving physical therapy following a stroke. In other pet therapy situations, a pet and volunteer may just visit a hospital or assisted living so that residents or patients may pet, interact or play with the animal. In certain cases, the pet you already have can also become a legitimate emotional support animal by procuring an official ESA letter to make sure you and your pet are fully covered.

If you own a calm, friendly animal that would make a good pet companion, search the Internet for organizations that seek volunteers or contact a university's school of veterinary medicine for information. The Delta Society is one such international, non-profit, human service organization that provides companion animals and also trains volunteers and screens animals for participation in pet therapy programs.

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Discussion Comments
By anon924461 — On Jan 04, 2014

@anon924344: Since your wife has a note from a doctor saying she needs a pet, and that she is disabled without her cat, then an attorney could probably help you, since this could be considered a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This act means places have to provide accommodations (aid) for those with disabilities. It's the same as a blind person needing a service dog. Even a place with a no-pet policy is legally required to allow service dogs.

So, talk to an attorney and see if your wife qualifies. If not, please do not have your cat put down. Contact a no-kill rescue agency to find the animal a forever home.

By anon924344 — On Jan 03, 2014

I live in a condo in south Florida and the association doesn't believe my wife needs her cat. They think that it is not for pet therapy even though she has a doctor's letter. Do they have the right to kill my cat if the lady said no pets in the condo? Thank you in advance.

By latte31 — On May 21, 2011

@Sunny27- I agree with you. I think that the pet therapy benefits are so great that most people that should have a pet. There are many people that are lonely that may not be in a nursing home but could still use some companionship and buying a pet is a good way to go.

By Sunny27 — On May 19, 2011

I love the idea of pet therapy in nursing homes. Animals give such unconditional love that I can understand how these pet therapy dogs help people.

People in nursing homes don’t have a lot to look forward to sometimes and to and know that they will be visited my a loving little animal is so sweet that it would probably raise the spirits of the elderly person for some time after the animal left the facility.

It also takes the focus off of their medical issues for a moment which is why the animal brings so much joy to them.

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