By Lisa Steuer
It is quite obvious that people love their pets. In fact, 62 percent of U.S. households contain a pet, and about $45 billion is spent on pets annually, according to Pamela Linden LMSW, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor in the Occupational Therapy program at Stony Brook University.
But what many people may not realize is that these animals could be positively impacting the pet owner’s health, and that emerging research shows that therapy and comfort animals could have a place in therapeutic and trauma settings. Currently, a lot of the research on the health benefits of pet ownership has to do with the bond between the animal and its owner, Linden said.
“There’s a book by Meg Daley Olmert called ‘Made for Each Other’ and the whole book is about oxytocin — and that’s why we bond with others, including other mammals, like dogs,” said Linden. “A lot of it has to do with the gazing and the staring, so studies have been done, especially one interesting study that measured oxytocin levels in both the human and the dog after gazing— oxytocin levels raised for both of them,” resulting in good feelings not only for human, but for the dog, too.
Linden’s hope is that more people will be motivated to understand the role of pets in our lives. She developed the first social work internship with Patchogue Rotary Animal Assisted Therapy, a not-for-profit organization in Patchogue that screens, trains and supports human-dog teams that visit individuals in schools, hospitals and hospice facilities. Linden hopes to work with PRAAT to research the effect that comfort animals have on people who are already sick.
In addition, Linden is the faculty advisor for Stony Brook University’s first Animal Assisted Activity student club anticipated to begin in spring 2016. So far, more than 150 students have signed up for the club, which has goals to help provide education about animal -assisted therapy while partnering students with organizations like PRAAT and local shelters to help prepare dogs to become adoption-ready.
Linden pointed out that people often get confused between service animals, therapy dogs and comfort animals. Service dogs are protected by law, are allowed anywhere animals typically aren’t allowed and have been trained to perform special functions, like open doors, push buttons and retrieve objects for people with visual impairments, for instance. A comfort dog has been trained to visit hospitals, nursing homes and similar places to provide comfort to patients, and a therapy dog is an animal used by a licensed health professional to achieve a therapeutic outcome.
“I’ll give you an example [of a therapy dog],” said Linden. “As a social worker, I’m working with someone who is grieving. And they’re either too numb or too emotional to process the grief. I might bring in a dog with a therapeutic goal of bridging between the client and the therapist by doing those behaviors that we do— you can snuggle up to a dog, pet it, stare into the eyes and have your oxytocin kick in and relax.”
Physical, Psychological and Emotional Benefits
Although the research is limited, studies have demonstrated the healthy benefits of pet ownership and companionship. Linden shared the physical, psychological, and emotional benefits:
• Physical: Pet owners have fewer minor health complaints and have greater levels of exercises and physical fitness. Studies have found that pet owners had reductions in some common risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as lower systolic blood pressures, plasma cholesterol and triglyceride values.
“People experience a decrease of blood pressure talking to pets. Blood pressure decreases for people with normal pressures and those with hypertension when watching fish in a standard aquarium,” said Linden.
• Psychological: Studies have found that pet owners enjoy better well-being than non-owners, and that pet owners have greater self-esteem and tend to be less lonely.
“People find comfort in talking to their animals. People walking with their dog experience more social contact and longer conversations than when walking alone — pets stimulate conversations between people,” Linden said. “Companion animals can help people to laugh and maintain a sense of humor.”
She added that Children with ADHD and defiant disorders exhibit significantly less antisocial and violent behavior than a matched group that did not involve animals.
• Emotional: Companion animals have been shown to alleviate anxiety. Stony Brook brings dogs in during exam time to help relax the undergraduate students.
“Any discussion regarding pets should include the notion of responsible pet ownership — ensuring that their physical, medical and emotional needs are met. This requires adequate financial resources and time to devote to caring for the pet,” added Linden.