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.
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.