When animals help to heal

By Dr Sue Samuelsson

Have you ever been ill and felt your heart lift at the sight of your beloved pet?


Even better, have you then been able to have a cuddle and keep them with you for a while?


Recent studies have proved that during times of stress, interaction with an animal can lower your blood pressure and regulate your heart. When children are with animals, their levels of anxiety and behavioural stress reduce. If they have no brothers or sisters, pets help them to develop more empathy and higher self-esteem, and encourage them to higher levels of participation in physical and social activities.


In an aged care home, a dog or cat is of tremendous benefit to those who find it difficult to communicate or interact. Pet companionship can help those with mental health issues and reduce incidents of recurrent behaviours. The benefits are not just linked to mental well-being. The presence of a dog or cat can help the elderly to carry out tasks that normally they might find a challenge, like climbing stairs, bending, preparing meals, bathing or taking their medication. The care-taking role may give the elderly a feeling of responsibility and purpose that adds to their overall sense of well-being.


Some research studies have found that people who have a pet tend to have lower resting heart rates and lower blood pressure. They stay home sick less often, make fewer visits to the doctor, exercise more often, and feel less depressed. Pets also make a significant impact on social support and social interactions with other people.


It’s not only dogs and cats that can improve our health. Frequent interaction with horse, or equine therapy, can help the physical and mental health of people with cancer. Patients who interacted with horses for at least two hours a week showed an improvement in their physical strength after treatment, as well as a reduction in their anxiety.


Animals can be trained to improve the lives of people with specific conditions. You will have seen seeing-eye dogs on the street, but there are also animals trained to detect seizures, or used in occupational therapy, speech therapy, or physical rehabilitation. There are programmes that can provide a dog companion for people with long-term illnesses or disabilities. The dog can be trained to give physical assistance or emotional support. For a person in recovery or extended care, the mere presence of a friendly,  safe and happy dog can be an enriching experience.


The ways in which dogs can provide assistance are amazingly diverse. They can assist with balance, pick up dropped items, counter the effects of anxiety, stress and/or other episodes, provide comfort during acute and palliative therapies, provide motivational aid in rehabilitation therapies, remind patients to take medication, help with clothing, and many other roles as needed.


In Australia, sections of the Disability Discrimination Act guarantee that those with a disability and partnered with an assistance dog have total access rights in nearly all situations. This refers to any place which is open to the public such as public transport, hospitals, motels and hotels, restaurants, and so on.


Those who have a pet know how comforting, amusing and friendly their animal can be. When we’re sad they offer comfort, when we’re sick, they offer health benefits. In short, they improve our lives.


Most of us would never be without them.


Let me know your experiences.


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Dr Sue Samuelsson is a caring and dynamic vet in the Northern Territory, Australia who has had a profound effect on many remote communities around East Arnhem Land. She is the creator of i-Vet, an innovate online service designed for pet owners. Away from her busy schedule she enjoys catching barramundi in the Daly River.