Freelance writer Jenny Holt explains the importance of animal-assisted therapy in providing relief to patients undergoing stressful medical treatment.

It is often said that a dog is man’s best friend. There are few areas in our lives where this has been shown to be truer than in the world of medicine and rehabilitative therapy.

The goal of animal-assisted therapy is to destress the patient and encourage emotional, cognitive, and physical healing. Especially in a hospital environment, the stress of being sick, away from your home, and facing an uncertain future can be overwhelming to many. The goal of animal-assisted therapy is to lower those stress levels so that one can focus on getting better over the long term.

Can animals really help us?

When one first hears of animal-assisted therapy, they most often immediately think of service dogs. While service dogs are incredibly common, and play an important role in the lives of many individuals out there with physical, emotional, and mental disabilities they aren’t the only means through which animals can help humans live and heal. Dogs can also be used in a psychiatric setting to assist children with their healing process and also aid doctors in assessing the progress of someone’s treatment. Giving people pets has also been shown to improve their long-term survival after hospitalisation.

It doesn’t stop with dogs or cats. Horses have been identified as another helpful healing creature. Horseback-riding has been shown to improve the fitness of cancer patients, which in term helped their survival rates. Not only that, but interaction with horses has also been shown to markedly improve the psychological health and wellbeing of those same patients.

What benefits does animal therapy bring?

Regardless of the animal used in therapy, there are multiple benefits to gain. Pet therapy has been shown time and time again to improve motor skills, physical fitness, self-esteem, social skills, willingness to participate in activities, overall psychological health, and a reduction in anxiety or other negative feelings.

Pet therapy is useful for anyone undergoing stressful medical treatment, but there are groups of people that benefit more than others. Those undergoing cancer treatments, long-term hospitalisation, children undergoing any potentially scary procedure, anyone who requires physical therapy, and those undergoing mental health or addiction treatment can all benefit greatly from animal-assisted therapy.

Animals and human beings have always had a deep and special bond. There are few human beings on the planet who dislike animals, and the evolutionary reasons why this is the case are obvious. They aren’t just our friends, companions, or pets: they are powerful beings that help human beings heal with their very presence.