The Benefits of Pet Therapy

Studies suggest that people who have pets are likely to be healthier and happier than people who don’t live with animals. Furry friends provide companionship and a sense of purpose, and can even motivate their owners to get more exercise. Dogs, cats, horses, and even bunnies offer unconditional love, a calm and quiet presence, and a willingness to accept us as we are. And for children and adults suffering from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, or autism, therapy animals can offer their human companions some very tangible health benefits.

How Pets Help Adults

Kathy Loter is the Animal Assisted Therapy and Education Program Coordinator for Dove Lewis, a 24-hour emergency animal hospital and non-profit organization in Portland, OR. Loter helps connect specially trained dogs with community organizations like hospitals, assisted living facilities, schools, and mental health and social service facilities, and she’s seen countless stressful situations turn around the minute a therapy dog pads in a room. "A family was waiting in a hospital lobby because their mother had been admitted with a serious emergency. They were so worried they couldn’t even talk to each other," she recalls. "As soon as the therapy dog entered the area, though, it was as if someone had hit the reset button. They talked about the dog, petted and interacted with him, and then they were finally able to talk to each other. The dog was only with them a few minutes, but it changed everything.

"I’ve seen dogs and their trainers at assisted living facilities who’ve worked real miracles," Loter adds. "In one case, a woman who had just moved in was so uncomfortable with her new living situation that she hadn’t been willing to leave her room for a week. In walks a dog and suddenly, the ice breaks. The dog gave her something comforting she could relate to and talk about with other people. Finally, she felt like she had something in common with the staff and other residents, and she learned they were friendly."

How Pets Help Kids

Therapy animals can also help children. "Animals, especially dogs, but to some extent also cats, and horses—I have even heard of a llama that provides pet therapy—can offer children and some adults a calm, quiet presence that helps them deal with whatever emotional discomfort they’re experiencing," says Danielle Wilcox, LMFT, a child and family therapist at Kinship House in Portland OR, who works with children and families in foster situations. For instance, "Animals can be very helpful for children with autism, who lack the ability to recognize social cues in human interaction. A trusted animal helps them learn to interact in a calm, kind way."

In addition, "Therapy animals can help patients with anxiety and depression feel less irritable and agitated and more relaxed," Wilcox continues. After all, "Animals don’t talk or have expectations. In so many therapeutic situations, especially with children, they [children] need some relief from all the talking, or they need someone they can talk to who will listen without talking back. Animals help children feel more trusting by allowing them to be vulnerable. Therapy animals will listen, be present, and absorb their trauma without judgment and without requiring anything in return. People don’t have to worry about an animal’s emotional response to hearing their story, or about making them uncomfortable with their anxiety."

What Kinds of Animals Make the Best Therapists?

Thinking about developing a therapeutic relationship with a furry friend? Consider Wilcox’s observations: "Dogs are perfect for many therapeutic situations because they’re loving by nature and can be trained to provide specific services. Horses can also be very important for building trust and providing strong support. Cats are more independent and temperamental, but they can also be very loving and kind without requiring a lot of effort or interaction."

How do you find a pet therapy program in your area? Mental health professionals are often aware of programs in their networks, and your local veterinary hospital may also have programs and resources to connect animals with people in need. National organizations like Pet Partners ( help patients and providers connect with animals and trainers to assist with specific needs. So if you think you or a loved one could benefit from some fur therapy, reach out today.

Danielle Wilcox, LMFT, reviewed this article.


Kathy Loter, Program Coordinator, Animal Assisted Therapy and Education Program. Dove Lewis Veterinary Hospital and Non-Profit Organization. Interviewed July 21, 2015.

Danielle Wilcox, LMFT. Kinship House. Interviewed July 23, 2015.

Pet Partners. Page accessed July 24, 2015.