News | Published May 13, 2018 | Written by David Doll, psychiatric counselor, behavioral health, Mount Nittany Medical Center

The healing power of pets

David Doll, psychiatric counselor, behavioral health, Mount Nittany Medical Center

In 1859, Florence Nightingale wrote, “A small pet is an excellent companion for the sick, the long chronic cases especially.” Recent studies and observations from health professionals agree. Many older adults are lonely, resulting in depression that can also lead to physical problems. Having a pet helps its owner focus on something other than his health concerns and negative preoccupation with loss or aging.

Research has also shown that owning a pet can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and increase social interaction and physical activity. One study at the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests hormonal changes naturally occur when humans and dogs interact. A few minutes of stroking a pet prompts a release of a number of “feel good” hormones.

Finding the right pet for an elderly person is important. Those who do not have mobility problems find walking a dog enjoyable with the added benefits of exercise and interaction with neighbors. A dog owner probably goes on walks more often and for greater distance than if he did not have a dog to accompany him. An older dog with a calm personality – rather than a puppy – is a good choice for an elderly owner. For those who are house bound, a cat might be a better choice, providing a wonderful companion for relaxing and cuddling.

The benefit of owning a pet is not limited to the older adults. A pet can provide a lonely, troubled person with something to care for, a sense of purpose and security. Watching a dog play with his toys or a cat stretched out in a spot of sunlight diverts its owner’s thoughts away from himself. Pets live in the here and now, not worrying about tomorrow. For a troubled person tomorrow is scary, but a pet’s attitude may rub off, giving the owner peace of mind.

Children, too, often get great benefits from a pet. It can affect their physical, social, emotional and cognitive development in positive ways. A child with low self-esteem may confide in an animal in ways he cannot with his parents or other people in his life. Reading skills of some children have improved as they read to a non-judgmental furry face. A pet is a source of unconditional love and it never judges. When a child is sad or upset, a dog’s wagging tail or cat’s soft purr can provide comfort.

Research has also shown a therapeutic benefit for children with autism. The connection to a pet can lead to the child being more playful, happier and more focused. It can improve their communication and social skills. A special bond can exist between a child and his pet, contributing to his ability to connect with other children and adults.

Finding the right pet is important to a family with children, and particularly if it includes a child with special needs. When considering adding a dog to the family, the advice of a veterinarian or dog trainer may be helpful. Certain breeds are recommended for a family situation, with the lifestyle of the family and the ages of the children taken in to consideration. When choosing a cat, pick one that is friendly, calm, and likes to be held and cuddled.

The loving companionship of a pet contributes a great deal to a person’s mental health and sense of wellbeing.

David Doll is a psychiatric counselor in the behavioral health department of Mount Nittany Medical Center.

This article originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times