Written by: Amy Gregor, MSW, LCSW

In recent years, you may have noticed that more places are incorporating pet therapy into their services. You may have seen this during a hospital stay, at your therapist’s office, the dentist, at your grandparent’s assisted living residence, the airport, and even in some schools around town – but why? It is no secret to us animal lovers that there is nothing better than the unconditional love of your pet, but what about those of you who do not have your own furry loved on at home? How exactly can others benefit from pet therapy?

Maybe you’ve noticed yourself so wrapped up in your thoughts or how blah your day has been until a dog happens to pass by wagging its tail eagerly at you, beckoning you bend down to pet it. What was your reaction? My guess…. A big smile, along with some “Oh my gosh they are so cute” and a continued conversation about the dog while simultaneously fighting off some kisses only to stand up and immediately feel somewhat lighter after the welcome distraction. Since the 1960’s, when Child Psychiatrist Boris Levinson began documenting the use of his pet with his clients, research on the benefits of human/animal interactions have skyrocketed, and the results speak for themselves:

Benefits of Pet Therapy or human-animal interactions:

  1. Increase in energy and motivation. There is nothing like Fido wagging their tail at the door to get you out and about for a quick spirt of exercise.
  2. Improvement in self-esteem and mood.
  3. Improvement in socialization, communication, and decrease in boredom. How many people have you stopped to talk to about their dog, or vice versa?  Did you feel as socially anxious with your pet there?
  4. Decrease in fear and anxiety. The repetitive motion of petting your animal along with the distraction from our thoughts is also known to reduce our blood pressure!
  5. Improved pain management/decrease in pain and the use of pharmacological pain management interventions.
  6. Improved cardiovascular functioning (decreased likelihood of stroke and heart disease).

So how can we use our own pets at home to help improve our mental health? Callie, our practice therapy dog, has lots of suggestions for you:

  1. Commit to regular walks with your dog – a structured routine for you and your pet can benefit you both physically and emotionally as well as improve the bond between the two of you.
  2. Use your pet (dog, cat, bunny, hamster, you name it) as a guide to help you regulate your breathing. Place your hand on your pet and try to match your breathing with theirs, especially when they are resting peacefully.
  3. Use your pet as a grounding skill. Sit in a comfortable spot with your pet and focus on what it feels like for their fur to slide between your fingers. Is their fur smooth? Spiky? Wiry? Are they warm to the touch? What does your pet smell like? Is it time for a bath? Can you hear their breathing, their snorts, barks, or meows? Be present in the moment with your fur baby.
  4. Are you dreading an uncomfortable conversation with your parent or child?  Take your pet with you and all sit on the floor petting them, take them on a walk and talk, throw the ball. The distraction will help the conversation feel less awkward and allow you both to open up and be more vulnerable.
  5. Talk it through with your fur friend. Practice difficult conversation or just vent. There is no better listener out there, and if you are extra lucky – you’ll get some return kisses.

Remember, you do not have to have a pet in your home to benefit from them. If your friends or neighbors have one, ask to pet-sit or take them on a walk. If you have had a rough day, go for a walk around the neighborhood – you are bound to run into someone who is willing to give you 5 minutes of love, or go out to the barn or petting zoo. Lastly, Callie is always happy to give some extra love so do not hesitate to ask for her in one of your sessions with us. We are also happy to provide a list of Equine Therapists in the community if larger pets (horses) are more your thing!