There’s no denying that a snuggle from our pup or a cozy cat in our lap is comforting after a rough day. But companionship between animals and humans also has the power to heal. Even looking at photos of our furry friends can lift our spirits. Flip through the slideshow above and see for yourself!
We spoke with OhioHealth psychologist Ruth Goldberg, PhD, to learn what science says about the human-animal bond.
Fur, feathers, scales and tails – all animals offer health benefits
Goldberg says any animal can serve in a therapeutic capacity — choice really just depends on individual preference. Dogs, cats, horses, birds, dolphins, llamas, rats, hamsters and fish are just some of the many animals that have been studied. And the benefits extend not only to humans but the animals as well.
Animals offer social, emotional and physical health benefits
A landmark study in 1980 by Erika Friedmann, PhD, popularized research into the therapeutic effects of human-animal interaction, says Goldberg. Friedmann’s study revealed that patients discharged from a coronary care unit who also owned a dog or cat were more likely to survive in the year following than those who did not own a pet.
Additional studies by Friedmann and other scientists suggest that interacting with animals can:
- Lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Reduce reliance on medications
- Reduce physical pain
- Increase physical activity
- Increase autonomic nervous system activity
- Stimulate mental capacity and improve memory recall and event sequencing
- Provide comfort
- Stimulate the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, hormones that elevate our mood
- Calm anxiety and slow breathing
- Reduce loneliness and depression
- Promote social interaction
- Provide a happy distraction
And it doesn’t take long to see the benefits, says Goldberg. In fact, a study of hospitalized heart failure patients at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center discovered that a single 12-minute visit from a volunteer with a dog helped improve heart and lung function more effectively than a visit from another human.
Animals in Action
Joyce Jacobson, a volunteer at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital and handler for Wesley, the hospital’s new therapy dog, has witnessed some of these health benefits firsthand. “I can remember a time when a nurse took a patient’s blood pressure as Wesley and I were leaving a patient’s room, and it was much lower than what it had been before our visit.”
Therapy animals are uplifting, she says. “They’re fun and they bring a smile to your face. Once, while making our hospital rounds, Wesley and I came upon a patient who hadn’t seen her dogs in a month. They lowered the gurney so she could pet him, and by the end of the short visit it wasn’t just her who was smiling, it was the whole group!”
Jacobson says Wesley also helps draw people out of their shells. “People in the hospital aren’t feeling well, they’re stressed, scared and sometimes grieving. Wesley offers a nonjudgmental ear and unconditional love, so many patients and their families will just pour their hearts out to him. He lifts an emotional burden off of them.”
Value transcends science
Goldberg says the study of human-animal interaction is growing rapidly and cautions that much of the existing research is correlational. “It doesn’t prove that pet ownership causes better health, but rather suggests they are associated.”
But Jacobson harbors no doubts. “Animals have an extra something special that humans can’t recreate. At Riverside, we call it ‘getting your Wesley fix.’ I think what proves his value most is when people approach us to say, ‘Thank you. This is just wonderful what you are doing.’”
The OhioHealth Facility Therapy Dog program is growing! See how you can support the program and bring “paws”itive energy to OhioHealth.