Pets have long been a source of companionship. People develop an attachment to their pets like they are another member of the family. Many experts believe that the friendship pets provide may extend physical health as well. Research is evaluating the medical benefits of pets, and many treatment centers including hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities are utilizing animals for various types of therapy. Man’s best friend may also be man’s way to better health.

Longtime pet owners will vouch for the joy and benefits their pets bring. Love, loyalty, friendship, companionship, safety and affection are just some of feelings pets give to and inspire within us. But do these gifts really bring about health benefits? That seems to be the case. Multiple studies have documented a helpful effect of pet ownership on blood pressure [Source: Allen, Jerman]. Other research has gone further to suggest that pets improve outcomes one year after a heart attack [Source: Friedmann]. Pet ownership for those with a previous heart attack also showed better heart rate variability, a factor in the overall health of the heart [Source: Friedmann].

The emotional benefits of pets may be the most sought after and well-known. Pets are positively associated in improving conditions such as depression, dementia and phobias [Source: Dimitriieic]. Specifically, pet-assisted therapy can help patients undergoing chemotherapy to have less depression and can actually aid oxygen saturation in the blood [Source: Orlandi]. Pets have been shown to help decrease the stress for those recently diagnosed with AIDS [Source: Siegel]. This may mean potential benefit for other traumatic diagnoses like cancer. Pets also helped those who were caring for loved ones with dementia experience less stress [Source: Fritz]. I have been told many stories, and also seen firsthand, how a pet would be drawn toward a sick family member and stay at their side until the illness had subsided. Pets may familiarize to a special energy or instinct that we do not yet understand, or perhaps have become too modernized to appreciate.

Pets may hold great opportunities for healing in children. Many families with autistic children have found pets to be a link or possible area to help open their child to new experiences and emotions. Many parents have commented on the changes seen in autistic children around animals and how often the animals have an instinctive understanding of the child’s special needs. A case of this nature was described in the book, The Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson documenting the uncanny relationship and remarkable changes seen when an autistic boy was in contact with his favorite horse. Other research has found therapy utilizing horses has helped children who have witnessed violence in the home gain higher levels of function [Source: Schultz]. What a great avenue for conventional medicine to help use pets as a way of helping children feel more comfortable and relaxed in a medical setting.

Animal domestication has been a part of our culture for millennia. Our relationship with animals has brought working partnerships, friendship, loyalty and love. Evidence is documenting both mental and physical benefits of pets. Pet therapy may open tremendous options for both children who have experienced substantial abuse or trauma and for the elderly who have limited social outlets in institutional care. Pet therapies may be available at cancer centers, hospitals or rehab centers or locally through programs such as horseback riding for families or individuals not interested in their own pets. Pets come with substantial responsibility and the risk of passing infection, but pets may also provide a sense of love that bolsters treatments through a variety of health conditions.