by Kimberly Allen R.N.
For those of us that have pets we already know how much they enrich our lives. Now there is scientific evidence that shows just how beneficial pets can be in helping us to be healthy or healthier. More and more we are seeing the use of animals, especially dogs, in a variety of places from health care settings to schools and jails to promote health and well being.
The use of animals as therapy is not new, it actually started back in WWII when a yorkshire terrier named Smokey was found abandoned on the battlefield by one of the soldiers. From that day on Smokey became a constant companion going on multiple combat missions. Smokey provided much needed comfort and entertainment to the soldiers. Then the soldier that had found her became ill and needed to be hospitalized. While in the hospital the other soldiers brought Smokey to the hospital to visit and cheer the soldier up. Smokey was an instant hit with the other wounded soldiers in the hospital. Dr Charles Mayo, founder of the Mayo Clinic, was the commanding officer that allowed Smokey to visit the soldiers in the hospital even allowing her to sleep with her soldier in his hospital bed. It was during that time that the Drs and hospital staff noticed how much Smokey’s visits helped the soldiers to heal and recover from their injuries.
Over the next 12 years as Smokey continued his hospital visits Drs noticed numerous changes in their patients after being visited by Smokey including decreased heart rate, lower B/P, and patients would be more relaxed and require less pain medication. Drs also noticed the patients were in better spirits and the had more positive attitudes, this helped the patients to heal faster. As the positive effects of “dog therapy” got noticed the demand for therapy dogs increased.
Though dog therapy had been in use for years it wasn’t until the 1970’s that researchers started really studying the effects of dog therapy. In one study they showed that heart attack patients that had a pet lived longer than those that didn’t. Other studies showed that interacting with your pet lowers your B/P and increases the level of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin has a significant effect on our bodies ability to heal and grow new cells. Animal also have a significant effect on children. They have been shown to help children overcome many problems.
I know many people with pets, mostly dogs, and these pets are part of their family. Several even went so far as to tell me they wouyldn’t bother to get out of bed most days if it weren’t for their dog. I have a friend that has been battling cancer and she says knowing that her dogs love and need her gives her the strength to fight. As a rule people that have pets have fewer severe health issues,……why? because they tend to exercise regularly, by walking their dog, they also tend to fowllow their Drs orders and try to live healthier lives. When asked why the number one response is because they’re needed.
It’s important to understand the difference between therapy dogs and service dogs. Service dogs are defined as having been “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability” Therapy dogs are not trained to be “therapy dogs”. Though they are not trained they are required to have certain characteristics. Therapy dogs must be calm and able to respond to others, in other words a one person dog is not a good choice for a therapy dog. The most important characteristic of a therapy dog is that it is easy going and comfortable around strangers.
Since the ’70’s numerous organizations have been started that offer the service of therapy animals across the US and worldwide.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.