Pets and wellness
Are you a dog, cat or lizard person? Regardless of your preference, research shows that pets of all stripes (and spots!) are good for our well-being.
To illuminate how the human-animal bond can heal and rejuvenate, HealthySteps to Wellness talked with Martha Kessler, Executive Director of Finance and Administration in the School of Medicine and volunteer through Pet Partners — a national agency that sets standards and certifies pets to become therapy animals. Pet Partners teams provide therapy services in the Bay Area (including Stanford) and other parts of the country.
Pets need to become certified before working as therapy animals.
Pets must pass skills tests administered by Pet Partners to determine if they have the right temperaments to work as therapy animals and if they are suited for general populations or sensitive populations, like children or hospital patients. Pets’ temperaments change with age, so pets are recertified every two years to ensure their temperaments are still appropriate.
Pet Partners certifies nines animal species. The therapy animals are volunteers’ home pets and are not owned by Pet Partners. Pets have to be up-to-date on vaccinations and wellness care, bathed 24 hours prior to a visit, and they cannot be fed a raw meat diet, which can cause E. coli shedding. Of note is that therapy dogs are not service dogs and do not have the same privileges
Pets improve emotional health.
Research has linked pets with lower stress, decreased feelings of loneliness and increased opportunities for socialization.
“There’s documented research that just petting a dog can help release endorphins and lower heart rates,” Kessler says.
These effects aren’t limited to cute and furry pets. Horses are well-known therapy animals, with activities like grooming and walking reducing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
Caring for a living creature inspires purpose and meaning, as demonstrated by finding that older adults who cared for crickets were happier. 1
Pets can help in crises.
Kessler works with a national animal-assisted crisis response group to bring therapy dogs to emergency situations. Crisis work requires additional training and certification.
“We’ve had dogs at the Clearlake fires, Santa Rosa fires, San Jose floods and the Santa Barbra slides, as well as many other national disasters and crises around the country.”
She notes that therapy animals can help people focus, which is important in a crisis situation, because people need the information that first responders and agencies are providing to help recover from the crisis.
“It’s emotional. The dog doesn’t judge. It’s easy for people to give the dog a hug and start crying.”
Therapy animals can also be used in other high-stress situations, including providing support to children while they testify in courtrooms.
Pets help children learn and socialize.
Studies have shown that pets motivate children to focus on a task. In line with this research, Kessler brings her therapy dog to local libraries to aid children in learning to read. Many libraries around the country have similar programs.
“Reading to the dogs helps build confidence because the dogs aren’t going to judge or correct the children’s readings. I’ve even heard from several of the parents that the children practice at home to read to the dogs.”
Pets can also help children socialize. One study found that when a guinea pig was placed in a classroom, children with autism became more social, smiled and laughed more, and were less stressed.2
Pets can give inmates purpose.
The act of caring for an animal is therapeutic and purposeful. Kessler describes programs where inmates train shelter dogs with limited adoption potential so that the dogs can eventually be put up for adoption.
“It helps the inmate develop skills and makes their time more meaningful by giving them something to be responsible for.”
Pets give us a reason to exercise.
Some pets need exercise; as a result, we get exercise, too. A walking program that matched sedentary adults with therapy dogs resulted in increased walking over a 52-week period.3 Participants stated their motivation was “the dogs need us to walk them.”
Pets improve physical health.
By giving us a reason to exercise and conferring emotional health benefits, pets have well-documented positive effects on our physical health:
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased cholesterol levels
- Decreased triglyceride levels
- Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
- Reduced risk of lymphoma
- Higher one-year survival rates following heart attacks
Studies have also linked therapy animals with decreased physical pain in fibromyalgia patients and patients recovering from surgery.
Pets may reduce healthcare costs.
Because pets improve physical and emotional health, they may also help reduce healthcare costs. Studies done in Austria and Germany showed that health savings of $3.86 billion, over 10 years, have been associated with pets.
Pick the pet right for you and your family.
If you want to take the plunge and adopt a pet, start by asking yourself these questions:
- Do you have time to properly care for and clean up after the pet?
- How large will the pet get?
- How much exercise will the pet need?
- Do you have young kids, older adults or anyone with a chronic illness or weakened immune system at home?
- What is the pet’s life span and are you committed to caring for the pet for its entire life?
- How much will veterinary care cost?
- What are you looking for in a pet?
- Do local laws or your housing arrangement limit your choice of pet?
- What future changes might occur in your living situation that would affect your ability to keep your pet in years to come?
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has a list of questions to ask yourself and information you should know before selecting a pet dog, a pet cat or another pet animal. Finally, be aware of the AVMA’s Guidelines for Responsible Pet Ownership.
Keep your pet safe and healthy.
All pets need regular veterinary care. If you’re worried about costs, Stanford offers pet insurance to help cover injuries, illness and wellness care for dogs, cats, birds and exotic pets.
Familiarize yourself with what your pet needs to be safe, even if it goes against conventional wisdom (e.g., no balls of string for cats).
Stanford hosts regular pet therapy events.
If you’re unable to adopt a pet, Pet Partners visits Stanford regularly for “Take a Break, Pet a Dog” events. (Check the BeWell events calendar for upcoming Stanford dog therapy events.) Kessler notes that the events are attended by both undergraduates and faculty.
Says Kessler, in closing, “There’s a fair amount of staff here who’d like to have a pet but can’t due to housing, so being able to come to the pet therapy events is a good alternative for them.”
By Katie Shumake
1 E Ko HJ, Youn CH, Kim SH, Kim SY. Effect of Pet Insects on the Psychological Health of Community-Dwelling Elderly People: A Single-Blinded, Randomized, Controlled Trial. Gerontology. 2016;62(2):200-9. doi: 10.1159/000439129. Epub 2015 Sep 18.
2 O’Haire ME, McKenzie SJ, Beck AM, Slaughter V. Social Behaviors Increase in Children with Autism in the Presence of Animals Compared to Toys. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0057010 Feb 2013.
3 Johnson RA, Meadows RL. Dog-walking: Motivation for adherence to a walking program. Clinical Nursing Research. 19(4), 387-402.
Centers for Disease Control: Healthy Pets, Healthy People
The American Veterinary Medical Association
Science Says Your Pet is Good for Your Mental Health. Oaklander, M. Time. April 2017.