The healing power of pets

Doctors and psychologists now prescribe pets for a range of ailments.

Tijn Touber | July 2004 issue
A unique American organization, Helping Hands Monkeys, trains monkeys to help paralysed people function better in their daily lives. Many who are paralysed spend hours each day by themselves, so the monkeys can be important in helping them get along without professional caregivers as well as a source of companionship. The monkeys bring food and drinks, help feed the paralysed person, pick things up that are out of reach, put on a CD or video, and turn lights on and off.
While monkeys are exceptional in the what they can do, all kinds of pets have a positive, healing effect on their owners. Studies reveal that having a pet is a better remedy against high blood pressure than commonly prescribed medications. A pet appears to be the strongest social indicator in predicting recovery from a serious heart condition. More and more often, doctors prescribe a pet for loneliness, depression, stress and other emotional problems. In the United States, half of all doctors reported they sometimes prescribe a pet to their patients.
Studies show that older people with pets pay considerably fewer visits to the doctor. Up to 16% less, according to professor Judith Siegel of the School of Public Health at the University of California. That percentage is even higher for dog owners, reaching over 20%. According to Australian research, the presence of house pets in households saves the Australian government some 800 million to 1.5 billion US dollars a year in health costs.
Psychologists have long realized the healing power of pets. In the 1950s child psychologist Boris Levinson often had difficulty reaching his traumatised patients, until the day that his dog Jingles wandered into the treatment room, His young clients were pleased and spontaneously opened themselves up to the dog, and thus also to Levinson. He was the first to write about “the dog as co-therapist”.
Forty years later, many therapists make grateful use of the intimate bond between humans and animals. People experience pets as non-judgmental and unconditional in their affection, and so clients often consider the animal an ally, which helps foster a spirit of mutual trust and open sharing in therapy sessions. Because animals are often funny or endearing, they help dissipate the tension around a therapy session. Children, in particular, often talk more easily to an animal than a human. Sometimes all the therapist has to do is bring up an issue and then observe where the child and animal take it.
There are countless well-documented examples of successful animal-assisted therapy. A little boy who begins to heal his partially paralysed hand by petting a dog. Abused children and prisoners who train a dog to learn how to not repeat the abusive behaviour they have experienced. Autistic children who learn to communicate through contact with dolphins.
Animals have the potential to play a much greater role, particularly in hospitals and care institutions. A friendly dog can perform miracles with critically ill patients. Even a few fish in a fishbowl helps ease tensions in a dentist’s waiting room. Research has repeatedly shown that taking care of an animal (or even a plant) makes people happier and helps them live longer. Could this be because animals and plants can listen so well without ever contradicting us? A study of Canadian doctors once discovered that listening is the most important ingredient in healing. Dr. Samuel Corson, an expert in the area of animal therapy at Ohio State University puts it this way: “A dog is man’s best friend because he wags his tail and not his tongue.”
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