Therapeutic Benefits of Animals for Patients with Chronic Disease

The connection between animals and humans is a powerful one. The relationship has long been studied and research shows that animals can have a big impact on a person’s health and wellbeing with some research linking pet ownership to living longer and happier. Although dogs and cats are most commonly integrated into various therapies, horses, chinchillas, fish and other animals can contribute as well.

Even workplaces seem to be adopting pet-friendly policies with the growing consensus being that work environments with fuzzy counterparts are happier places to be. The Huffington Post reports that “65 percent of HR decision makers reported that potential candidates often inquire about the workplace pet policy during the interview process.” Not surprisingly, we at Welkin Health also enjoy a pet-friendly office, where several members of our team are canines.

Aside from being comforting companions and co-workers, it’s been known that dogs are able to detect changes in human physiology, it is believed through their powerful sense of smell, drawing attention to the presence of certain diseases and even abnormal drops in blood sugar, such as with people who have type 1 diabetes.

The evidence connecting animals to better human health are intriguing, particularly when looking at chronic disease—a challenge that about 133 million Americans face with that number expected to grow.

Good for the Heart

The American Heart Association issued a statement that “owning a pet, particularly a dog, could reduce your risk of heart disease.” Good news for dog lovers considering heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans and an estimated 83.6 million adults have one or more types of cardiovascular disease.

A growing body of research points to the possibility that having a pet can benefit heart health including, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, lowering heart rate, even improving survival rates after a heart attack. One study found that among participants who had a heart attack, “those who owned dogs had a significantly increased survival rate at 1-year follow-up, with mortality being 4.05 times greater for those who did not own a dog.”

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) can also be a powerful intervention for chronic heart failure. A study looking at hospitalized patients with heart failure who received canine-assisted ambulation walked sooner and further than those did not and were also more motivated to do so. These findings indicate that canine-assisted ambulation “may shorten hospital stays, thereby decreasing the costs of heart failure care.” Patients also “unanimously agreed” that they enjoyed the canine-assisted ambulation therapy and would participate in the process again.

Mental and Cognitive Health Benefits

Animals have become an increasingly powerful tool to help individuals suffering from a variety of mental, behavioral, and emotional health issues such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and dementia.

Shown to improve social and communication skills, relieve anxiety, elevate an individual’s mood, help foster independent living and increase empathy, AAT can help promote “positive emotions, which can boost confidence and reduce feelings of loneliness, sadness, anger, and insecurity” in these groups of patients. Even the simple act of petting an animal is thought to release endorphins which can have a significant benefits for patients living with depressive disorders. Another study found stroking a dog or even talking to one can lower blood pressure.

Programs that bring dogs and cats into nursing homes and assisted living centers have proven a great benefit to elderly patients who can often experience isolation, loneliness and depression as well as lack social support. Furthermore, research has shown that AAT can ease agitation, depression and aggression—“behavioral and psychological symptoms” of dementia—in nursing home residents.

Leveraging a Natural Bond for Better Health

Interventions that integrate animals into the process are not for everyone. Not every person responds to animals in the same way—some people have health concerns or other restrictions that would make AAT or even owning a pet not possible. It’s also worth noting that much of the research to date is observational. Some may argue that individuals with dogs are more likely to exercise and therefore logically will have better cardiac health than someone who doesn’t. True, perhaps.

However for many, research seems to indicate that animals can have an extraordinary effect on the emotional and physical health of individuals living with serious diseases and challenges. That alone warrants further exploration.

For some, an increase in physical activity fueled by a love of horses and riding works to support weight loss efforts—others may benefit from the skills of a highly trained dog taught to detect low blood sugar levels or a pet fish who provides relief from anxiety. Either way, we expect to see the integration of animals into disease management and therapy continue to gain traction as the impact of this bond on human health becomes more evident.