The ability of pets to provide comfort to humans in times of illness or grief is recognized by medical professionals, therapists, and hospice workers around the world. People who are facing death or mourning the loss of a loved one are often calmed and reassured by the loving companionship of a pet.
Pets are known for their unconditional love, and in times of stress, many seem to know instinctively just how to respond. Loyal pets have been known to lay by ones side, attentive and patient, while they were in bed with the flu. That same kind of response can provide immense comfort in loss and bereavement. Because pets are so undemanding, a suffering human can welcome the opportunity to touch or snuggle up with a pet with absolute trust.
If one does not own a pet, animal assisted therapy (AAT) programs can help to improve the quality of life for the sick and the grieving. Developed in the 1970s, AAT’s origins can be traced to the Mayans, an ancient culture of people who believed that each person is assigned a “soul animal” as a guide through life.
AAT volunteers are specially trained individuals who bring their companion animals to homes and health care facilities to visit and interact with patients and their families who are confronting serious illness, death, and bereavement. By participating in AAT, people can benefit from contact with animals without the responsibility of pet ownership. AAT has gained rapid acceptance as dozens of studies revealed the amazing impacts of pet-human relationships.
Pets have been known to lower blood pressure, ease feelings of sadness and pessimism, and reduce the loneliness of patients in long-term care facilities. Children who have pets adjust better to the serious illness or death of a parent. Senior citizens who own pets have fewer doctor visits and reduced health care costs.
A University of California, San Francisco study published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care even found that a companion pet or animal can help a person cope with stressful life events, prevent loneliness, and decrease depression. The healing power of pets is beneficial on many levels:
Research has shown that people who interact with animals may experience increased levels of oxytocin. One study found that the simple act of making eye contact with their dogs when they got home from work increased oxytocin in a sample of women. On an emotional level oxcytocin helps mothers bond with their newborn babies, human couples establish a a greater sense of intimacy and it has been linked to increased feelings of self esteem, optimism and trust.
In addition to oxytocin there is some evidence to suggest that interaction with a friendly animal can decease levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and raise levels of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine.
Pet ownership has been linked to physical benefits such as reduced risk for heart disease, lower stress levels, fewer doctors visits, lower cholesterol, and lower blood pressure.
Again we can refer back to hormones and chemicals like oxytocin, cortisol and dopamine. Oxytocin has been found to relive pains like headaches, cramps and overall body aches. Lower levels of cortisol can account for lower stress levels and contributes to some of those heart and blood pressure related benefits.
It makes logical sense that pet ownership would reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Pets fulfill emotional needs like the need for love, security, companionship, and comfort. Taking care of a pet also fulfills the need to nurture and take care of a other living thing and can give people a sense of purpose.
Whether you were aware of the healing power of animals or you just realized they made you feel good, we encourage you to include your pet in your list of strengths when it comes to coping and healing from grief. If you are interested in pursuing therapy pets, contact the animal therapy program at Tallahassee’s TMH for more information about the program and how it may benefit you.