Animals have a healing effect on people’s lives in many ways, including lowering stress, easing anxiety and increasing an overall sense of well-being.
In fact, studies show that the act of petting a dog or cat lowers blood pressure and stress levels, and simply being around animals can increase levels of oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” in humans.
“The healing power of animals is real,” said Adri Howe of Oxnard, executive director of California Coastal Horse Rescue, a nonprofit in the Ojai Valley that rescues abandoned, abused, neglected and slaughter-bound horses.
The healing animals offer is “truly homeopathic,” she said, and that “you almost don’t notice the healing.”
“That is the most amazing part — animals can help to guide and transform us by us just being with them,” Howe said. “The horses are innate healers . . . who increase well-being and peace in all who come into contact with them.”
She recalled the time when group of boys from a local assistance agency came and visit the horses as part of the rescue’s Learn, Care & Share program. As the boys were exiting the van, one of the adult chaperones told Howe that they were having issues with the boys not paying attention and being disruptive during outings.
At first, the boys jostled with each other and weren’t paying too much attention.
“When it came time for the hands-on experience with grooming our horses, the boys were suddenly focused and were so caught up in the experience,” Howe recalled. “Their adult chaperones could not believe the incredible calming influence that the horses had on the boys. The boys kept commenting on how much they liked the horses they had been with. The boys that left that day were very different than the boys who had arrived at the ranch.”
In another case, one of the rescue’s volunteers lost her brother to cancer after her son died the year before. When she returned to the rescue after a couple months of being gone, she started spending time with Bridge, a horse that was rescued from “horrific abuse.”
“He is now a horse who loves people and is a horse that has such sensitivity to feelings and emotions,” Howe said.
As the volunteer was talking with Howe on the ranch, Bridge walked over and nestled his head against her.
“Tears came to her eyes and she remained there with Bridge for a long while. She was so touched by his gesture, especially at a time when she was going through the grieving process,” Howe remembered. “That is what healing is . . . Bridge knew exactly what to do in a way that a lot of humans would not have known.”
Dogs detect medical conditions
Studies have shows that dogs can be trained to detect seizures disorders, certain types of cancer and diabetes with 80 to 100 percent accuracy, said Nancy Mitchell of Camarillo, a registered nurse whose been working in the healthcare field for 24 years and has been training dogs for the last four years.
She is also the founder of VIP Dog Teams – Very Important Dogs Assisting Very Important People – a nonprofit that trains therapy dogs to provide assistance to those in need.
“When I take my therapy dog Brady to do goal-oriented therapy at the rehab unit of the hospital, he helps heal patients both inside and out,” Mitchell said. “He can make a patient smile by inciting a memory of their pet. He can encourage a patient to walk by staying at the side of their walker, he can strengthen a stroke patient’s weak arm by having them pet him or throwing a ball for him to retrieve — and the list goes on and on.”
Dogs can quite literally “smell fear” in the form of the surging hormones our bodies release in response to stressful situations, including adrenaline and cortisol, Mitchell noted.
“Scientists know that animals lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increase levels of oxytocin (the love hormone) in humans,” she said. “Therefore, chemically, a pet can do things for us naturally that fellow humans may not.”
Her dogs are involved in the R.U.F.F. Road program at Todd Road Jail, which stands for Rehabilitation Utilizing Furry Friends. The program involves shelter dogs from Ventura County Animal Services that are paired with carefully selected inmates who are taught how to train the canines to become therapy dogs.
“In our jail therapy training program, we hear testimony from inmates stating they have never had anyone love them unconditionally,” Mitchell said. “A dog doesn’t judge, he doesn’t care what you have done in the past. He loves you in the moment. He can heal emotional wounds that others may not even know exist. A dog will forgive you, which allows you to forgive yourself and move on and become a better person.”
As the director of community outreach for the Humane Society of Ventura County, Greg Cooper knows first-hand that working at an animal shelter can be very stressful, even for seasoned professionals.
He often sits with the shelter dogs and cats in what he calls “puppy therapy.”
“A lot of us here do the same to help alleviate our stress,” Cooper said.
The benefit extends to the animals as well, he said, because the more human socialization the animals engage in, the better chance they’ll be adopted.
The Humane Society of Ventura County also offers a Pet Assisted Therapy program, which arranges for volunteers to take their own pets or animals from the shelter to visit patients in the area’s assisted living facilities and hospitals.
“It is an incredibly valuable service that is greatly appreciated by the residents and animals alike,” Cooper said. “To see the residents of these facilities react when they are greeted by a wagging tail is a pretty amazing sight.”
There has to be a reason why adopting an animal is so popular in our culture, Cooper added.
“There has to be something more than just hav[ing] a companion in our home,” he said. “I have to believe that the long-term health benefits for the humans, and the improvement in quality of life for the animal, have a transformative healing power for all.”
It has become more widely accepted that pet ownership and animal assistance in therapy and education may have a multitude of positive effects on humans, according to a study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine entitled “Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin.”
The study indicated the following benefits that animals can have on humans:
- Effects on social interaction
Interacting with animals influences social interaction between humans and related factors important in this respect, such as trust, empathy, aggression and a positive mood.
- Increased positive social attention from others and stimulation of social behavior
Based on the presented evidence, it was concluded that contact with companion animals holds the potential to promote social interaction and functioning in children and adults with or without mental health problems.
- Reduction of aggression
In two studies, effects of the presence of friendly dogs on aggressive behavior in a classroom of first-graders were investigated via behavior observation and reports of the classroom teacher. In the presence of the dog, in comparison to its absence, aggressive behavior was decreased.
- Effects on blood pressure, heart rate and heart rate variability
Overall, most of these studies show that the presence of friendly animals, both familiar or unfamiliar, can effectively reduce heart rate and blood pressure or buffer increases in these parameters in anticipation of a stressor. These effects may even be stronger with one’s own pet.
- Reduction of fear and anxiety and promotion of calmness
Overall, the majority of studies points to a positive effect of interactions with and observation of animals on self-reported anxiety and calmness, in particular under stress-prone conditions.
- Effects on perception of pain
Unfortunately, none of the few existing studies on effects of animal contact on human pain management met the inclusion criteria. Reports point at a possible positive effect, however, indicating a reduced use of pain medication, especially in nursing homes and homes for the elderly.
- Effects on learning
Currently, there is no direct evidence that animals can promote learning in humans, but the presence of a dog in an educational setting seems to support concentration, attention, motivation and relaxation reflecting reduction of high stress levels, which inhibit effective learning and performance. Also, the presence of a dog creates a pleasant social atmosphere, which is known to be an essential component for optimal executive functioning, representing a precondition for learning.
- Effects on human health and restoration
Their findings generally suggest that companion animal owners have better health than non-animal owners, as indicated by medical markers such as cholesterol levels, or indirectly, via the frequency of doctor visits. These correlative studies, however, do not allow making a causal connection between pet ownership and health.
Health benefits for older individuals
Animal-assisted therapy has been considered in the treatment of depression in institutionalized individuals in a number of studies, according to a study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine entitled, “The Benefit of Pets and Animal-Assisted Therapy to the Health of Older Individuals.”
In one investigation, 28 residents of an Italian nursing home had three-hour treatment sessions once a week for a month and a half with a cat.
A nurse supervised individuals in a therapy room, who could pick up or play with the cat. The individuals who interacted with a cat did not have any significant difference in Geriatric Depression Screen score, but did have 16-point lower systolic blood pressure and five-point lower diastolic blood pressure than subjects who were not exposed to the cat.
In another trial of 68 nursing home residents in Australia, individuals who visited a dog reported less fatigue, tension, confusion and depression. Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy were divided into two groups, one of which had a weekly hour-long session of therapy with a dog and one of which did not. Those patients at sessions at which a dog was present rated their symptoms of depression and anxiety half as severe as those who did not.
“Like my dog”
Having shared most of her life with animals, Howe knows personally how they help to keep us healthy and happy, and support us during difficult or sad times.
“As a child, I remember that whenever I was sad, anxious or just unsure my pit bull mix, Sam, would come and find me and just be there with me,” Howe recalled. “I still remember burying my face in his neck and breathing into his fur. The immense comfort my dog offered me was incredible.”
In her many years of being with and working with horses, she has also personally felt the effects of their powerful, silent language, “and the incredible depths of their being and feelings.”
“They actually pick up on our feelings and emotions and can distill so much information from us. What is interesting though is that they don’t hold on what they pick up in us,” Howe said. “They actually can bring clarity to a situation or emotion by showing matching responses to our emotions and body language.”
Because animals live in the moment, they are very present and inadvertently help humans by helping them to just be present, Howe added.
“Maybe it is because horses are social beings who live in family groups much like humans,” she said. “Is that why we seek each other out?”
Mitchell witnesses the healing power every time she takes one of her therapy dogs out to visit. Recently, she worked alongside a therapist in a hospital setting where the patient she was about to see had a traumatic brain injury and had not spoken since he was hospitalized.
“When we walked in the door and asked if he wanted the dog to visit, his face lit up and he shook his head yes,” Mitchell remembered.
After being instructed to join the man on his bed, the dog smelled him and immediately snuggled in close.
“The man again smiled,” Mitchell said. “The dog knew he was needed and stayed close and responded to being pet by offering his belly, his most vulnerable spot. The man then spoke and said, ‘like my dog.’ ”
The first to greet us at the door are often our dogs and cats, Cooper said.
“What else can bring a smile to your face than a wagging tail or a happy meow?” he said. “Our animals are always there for us. If we are sick, they lay by our side or try to gently soothe our sorrows. What better place to be working than here at the shelter. We get it every day.”