Why Pets – and Pet Therapy – Help People Heal

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
A woman hugs a dog during a pet therapy session.
Clare McLean

From dog therapy sessions for frazzled college students to an increasingly diverse crop of emotional support animals, the therapeutic appeal of pets has never been more apparent. 

Pet therapy is a formalized way of benefiting from the healing powers of animals. Pets who are trained as therapy animals work in places like court systems, nursing homes and hospitals, including University of Washington Medical Center, where there are two pet therapy programs: one for patients and one for staff.

“For patients, the pure joy and love of a therapy dog helps humanize their inpatient experience and provides a calming and familiar interaction that is proven to decrease stress, regulate breathing and lower blood pressure,” says Cynnie Foss, UW Medical Center’s volunteer program manager. 

Her Labrador retriever Oly is a registered therapy dog. She says he brings a few moments of joy and stress relief during employee therapy sessions, and that people who participate in the sessions say petting and snuggling him was “just what they needed” to recharge. 

Aside from official therapy animals, many of us know how relaxing being around our own animals is, whether that’s playing with our dogs or snuggling with our cats. Both trained therapy animals and companion animals can help us with many issues beyond just stress reduction, says Brinda Jegatheesan, an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Washington.

Animals are valuable companions for people of all ages, says Jegatheesan, whose research focuses on the benefits of the human-animal bond in the psychological wellbeing of children, particularly children with post-traumatic stress disorder, children with developmental disabilities and hospitalized children. 

In her recently completed study that examined the effects of companion animals on children across diverse cultures, Jegatheesan asked children what their pets meant to them. A majority of the children responded that their pet was their “friend, family member or playmate who was there for me always.” 

The impact on adults might be a little different: Adults process stressors differently and are more capable of understanding big-picture issues, whereas kids are often about in-the-moment feelings, Jegatheesan says. For children who come from traumatic backgrounds, their pets are their anchors and they provide comfort, friendship, hope and a deep sense of feeling safe, she says. 

Still, no matter your age, here are some of the different ways pets help us heal.

Stress reduction

You know that happy feeling you get when you’re around your dog? That happens because interacting with dogs increases oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone,” in both humans and dogs when they spend time together. It also lowers cortisol, a stress hormone, in humans.

“Playing with a dog or a cat, petting them or just being physically close to them reduces cortisol,” Jegatheesan says. 

Spending time with your favorite furry friend can also lower blood pressure, particularly if you’re petting them. 

Pain relief

The presence of an animal can aid pain relief by taking someone’s mind off of what hurts. Jegatheesan has looked at this with children in hospitals. Therapy dogs visit a patient in their room, lie in bed with them during stressful procedures, play with them and are read to by the children. It helps the children focus on something other than the procedure.

When children were asked what they would like as a present for their birthday during the time they were hospitalized, often they chose a visiting therapy dog to keep them company, Jegatheesan says. Parents of hospitalized children have also stated that the presence of a therapy dog has comforted the child and made them feel less anxious.   

Emotional support

For children who are refugees, who have experienced abuse or who have otherwise experienced trauma, animals can provide emotional support, Jegatheesan’s research shows. 

Often, this takes the form of the animal becoming the child’s confidante, she says. Children will talk to their pets about what they’re going through or how they feel and confide in them about things they might not tell adults. It helps them process while also feeling supported by another living being who is a good listener.

“Helping them talk about their traumatic past always includes stories of their lives with their pets if they have had one. It’s a way into conversation with the child, using the pet as a starting point,” Jegatheesan says.

Dogs in particular can help children and adults who have gone through trauma and need to appear in court. A program in Seattle, as well as in many places across the country, trains dogs to be “courthouse dogs” that provide calm, quiet companionship for crime victims during court sessions.

Relieve loneliness

Loneliness is a growing health epidemic, with research showing that prolonged social isolation can be worse for someone’s health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

Taking care of an animal, be it a dog, cat or even a fish, can help combat loneliness in people, Jegatheesan says.  

“I worked with a child who had a fish named Mario. The child’s mom worked all the time, so he’d come home from school and talk to Mario about all that happened in school each day,” she says.

Increase activity and social interaction

People who have dogs, in particular, are known for being more active than their non-dog-owning peers, probably thanks to all those walks and off-leash park play sessions. It’s well known that exercise plays an important role in maintaining both physical and mental health and reducing stress.  

Dog-walking can also be helpful for children who are shy, as it can encourage social interaction when people ask to pet the dog, Jegatheesan says. Children who are shy often feel more confident talking about their pet than they do about themselves, too.  

A note for parents

As with most aspects of life, your kids are watching what you do and learning from it to model their own behavior. This is equally true when it comes to interaction with animals. 

“If the parents show positive interaction with animals, their children learn through watching them,” says Jegatheesan. 

Teaching kids how to care for animals is a great way to model empathy and help kids learn how to be more compassionate.

“Children who are kind to animals are very likely to be kind to other children. It’s a win-win for both species,” Jegatheesan says.