More dogs and other animals are going to work as animal-assisted and pet therapists, transforming the well-being of people who need it most: those with at-home care or who are in assisted living or care facilities, hospitals, schools, correctional facilities and mental institutions.
Companion creatures offer therapy simply by being with someone. Dogs cuddle, play, walk and rest by people’s side. Cats calmingly purr. Animals require grooming, feeding and physical care, and the result can be longer, healthier, happier lives for people and pets – plus a field of research and a vocation that’s booming.
The U.S. Department of Labor expects service and therapy jobs and positions, including pet and animal-assisted therapy, to grow more than 27 percent in the next decade. More than 90 percent of Americans in both pet-owning and non-pet-owning households told the American Humane Society in a 2012 survey that they believe an animal companion improves lives, especially the lives of people living alone, those who need at-home care, senior citizens, people with disabilities and young children.
“The positive effects of pet and animal-assisted therapy are undeniable,” said Gene Lennon, owner of Right at Home Santa Clara County. “As adult home-care providers, we’ve seen pets ease loneliness and give a purpose for getting out of bed. Now science and medicine prove that time with a pet, something that doesn’t have to cost a lot and can help you right at home, can be one of the best ways to boost your physical, mental and emotional health.”
Research shows that pet and animal-assisted therapy helps:
• Reduce depression, irritability and agitation, while increasing social engagement for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Mara M. Baun, DNSc, of the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, has documented for more than a decade how animal visits foster greater physical activity (when people groom, play with and walk the pets), improved eating, more attempts to communicate and greater pleasure and happiness (more laughter and smiles during time with the animals).
• Ease anxiety, according to a two-year study that Alberta Health conducted which shows a reduction of symptoms and panic attacks in 80 percent of people given dog companions.
• Decrease sleeplessness and suicidal thoughts from post-traumatic stress disorder, otherwise only treated with medication, especially for war veterans and trauma survivors. In a 2011 study by the U.S. Army with the Psychiatric Service Dog Society, 82 percent of people given service dogs reported reduced symptoms within one month.
• Manage pain, particularly with cancer, as cited by The Gale Group Inc. in a 2010 report on cancer visitation therapy, regarding the effects of dogs spending time with children with cancer.
• Lower hypertension and reduce heart attacks, as noted in a 2005 study at UCLA Medical Center, where cardiac patients exhibited lower adrenaline levels associated with stress.
• Foster healing after surgery and invasive medical procedures, even dental appointments, as documented by the Mayo Clinic, which in 2002 introduced Dr. Jack, a miniature pinscher, as its first facility-based service dog.
• Create more happiness and comfort by boosting levels of the hormone oxytocin. In a study by the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Center for the Study of Animal Wellness, simply petting a dog, cat or rabbit for 15-30 minutes increased the feel-good hormone oxytocin and its several partnering stress-beating hormones.
“As more people see the overall health benefits of pet and animal-assisted therapy, the practice will continue to grow throughout the U.S.,” Lennon said. “It’s inspiring to see the elderly light up when they interact with a pet. Their everyday lives are enriched because of the companionship pets provide.”
For more information on Right at Home, call (408) 496-0833 or visit rightathome.net.