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A Patient’s Best Friend: The Power of Pet Therapy

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 7:05 AM

Going through treatment, trying to cope with a social disorder or building the courage to start exercising again all come with their own physical and emotional stresses. When facing a unique struggle, many patients have found an equally unique solution in the form of pet therapy. This treatment method pairs patients with animals such as a dog, cat or another creature to provide comfort and support that’s shown to have a number of benefits.

Pet therapy animals can provide individual comfort to a patient working towards a specific goal through structured activities. This could include:

Dr. Leon Benson

  • A child who is struggling with reading skills can practice reading to a therapy dog
  • A patient in physical therapy works to improve motor skills by playing or petting
  • Brushing and feeding a therapy horse
  • Learning to be gentle and kind by handling smaller therapy animals

Therapy animals and their handlers both go through a certification process, but it’s important to note that therapy dogs don’t receive the same training as service dogs.

Not only are domestic animals like dogs and cats able to become therapy animals, but there are also ways to work with smaller animals (rabbits, fish, birds), as well as even bigger animals like horses or dolphins. Leon Benson, MD, Orthopaedic Surgeon at NorthShore and owner of two certified therapy dogs (pictured above with Chelsea) details the process of animal therapy and some of the positive effects it can have on patients. Studies have shown that pet therapy can help improve:

  • Pain management. The simple act of petting an animal not only gives patients a sense of relaxation, but also releases endorphins which decrease feelings of physical pain while reducing stress and anxiety.
  • Mental health. Animal therapy has become part of supporting many different kinds of people suffering from mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Animals help to create a trusting atmosphere and a sense of comfort and safety for those who have had a difficult time reconnecting with other people. Even those experiencing anxiety from events such as going through an MRI scan can find support through a therapy animal.
  • Motor skills. Everyday physical activities incorporated into pet therapy (taking an animal for a walk, playing fetch with them) can encourage patients in physical therapy to feel positive about being active and improve their recovery time.
  • Social skills. Working with animals can teach patients a newfound sense of empathy and companionship. Pet therapy has been shown to encourage young patients with both physical and mental disorders to be more social and willing to participate in activities without fear.
  • Physical ailments. Those battling long-term illnesses such cancer often spend a lot of time in the hospital. Being able to work with an animal lets patients socialize, making coping with their situation and feelings easier to handle.  Pet therapy also serves to benefit those with frequent heart problems by reducing heart rate and blood pressure.

NorthShore is happy to be offering a pet therapy program for its patients through Evanston Hospital. Learn more through our Physical Medicine & Rehabilitations Services.  

What do you think would be a great new way to use pet therapy?