Canine Companions: Can They Be Good For Our Mental and Physical Health?

Jacqueline is a 72-year old woman suffering from Parkinson’s. Last year, her license was revoked and she was home-bound, causing her to fall into a deep depression. After several months of battling her morose mood, Jacqueline sought out the help of a psychiatrist. His recommendation? Get a dog.

So, Jacqueline contacted a local animal shelter, which provided a low-cost solution for her: a chihuahua named Precious. Within days, her mood improved drastically and she was able to find joy again. “This little dog is a true blessing. I would not have made it without her.”

Everywhere you turn these days, you see dogs walking their owners, being carried in little carrier purses, and heck, even driving cars in Subaru commercials. One place you may not expect to find them, though, is in your therapy office or medical exam room.

New research over the past decade is showing that canines can play a crucial role in both mental and physical health.

Let’s explore some of the benefits of having canine companions:

Canine Companions Help Lower Blood Pressure

A 2007 study at the UCLA Medical Center showed that a 12-minute hospital visit by a volunteer with a therapy dog helped improve blood pressure results, reduce stress and decrease anxiety in patients with advanced heart failure.

In 2016, a similar study conducted by Krause-Parello & Kolassa of older adults living in the community found that pet therapy significantly decreased blood pressure and heart rate.

The American Heart Association (AHA) released a statement in 2013 indicating that owning a dog can have a positive impact on heart health since 54% of dog owners get more exercise by walking their dogs, thereby lowering stress levels and blood pressure.

Other research, published in the American Journal of Cardiology, has found that heart attack survivors with dog companions are more likely to recover sooner and live longer than their counterparts who do not have a pet.

Canine Companions Help with Anxiety, Depression and Panic Attacks

Depression can be caused by many factors, but chief among them is simply loneliness. Research has shown that, in individuals age 60 and older, those who were living with pets were four times less likely to be diagnosed clinically depressed than those who were non-pet owners living alone. There is also evidence to show that pet owners require fewer medical services and were much more satisfied with their lives.

Pets come with great responsibility and, according to depression research, responsibility helps promote mental health. Caring for a pet helps people become less frightened, more secure and self-sufficient. It proves to the owner that by taking care of another living creature, they can take care of themselves.

Plus, petting or stroking a dog can induce the release of oxytocin, a powerful hormone that reduces stress, helping to lower blood pressure and heart rates and improve mood.

Dogs offer unconditional love and acceptance, plus provide a comforting, familiar presence to those who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. Some dogs are trained to provide passive resistance to others approaching their owners, helping owners feel protected and secure.

Canine Companions Help Veterans with PTSD

More than 300,000 veterans returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many of these cases were so severe that the traumatized veterans would not be able to function in society and would cut themselves off emotionally from family.

Specially-trained mental health service animals help veterans overcome PTSD symptoms like emotional numbness, hyper-vigilance, and paranoia. Knowing that a naturally alert creature is standing watch allows PTSD sufferers to relax and feel more comfortable in their surroundings. And providing praise and other communications with the service animals draws veterans out of isolation.

Canine Companions Help Stabilize Patients in a Therapy Environment

Many studies have found canine-assisted therapy to be highly effective in improving social skills, raising self-esteem and confidence, reducing abusive behavior, bolstering a person’s mood and promoting free self-expression during counseling. Therapy dogs give patients affection, warmth and a reason to smile, helping the person to momentarily forget their problems.

Canine-assisted therapy is particularly beneficial for children with autism. Several studies have shown that children with autism respond much better in therapy with a mental-health assistance dog present – autistic children are less aggressive, smile more, are more talkative and socially engaged, and settle in better during therapy.

Dogs offer many benefits: companionship, unconditional love and acceptance, and a soothing and calming presence. If you have any anxiety over mental health therapy or an in-patient medical procedure, ask if your provider has a service dog available to provide distraction and help you maintain calm.

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