Pets, People, & Therapy - Foundations Family Counseling

Pets, People, & Therapy… Oh My!

Did you know that approximately 55 million people in the United States own dogs and 60 million people own cats as pets? I am a proud dog owner and consider my pup a family member. Pets are not only cute and cuddly, but owning and/or working in a therapeutic capacity with animals provides a variety of benefits. Here’s a little history for you on pet therapy, which is also referred to as animal assisted therapy (AAT).

The therapeutic use of animals dates back to 1792 at the York Retreat, an insane asylum, in England. The York Retreat incorporated gardening, exercising, and AAT into the patients’ treatment plans. In 1919 in the United States, a psychiatric hospital started using therapy dogs when treating patients. In 1942, the U.S. military implemented pet therapy to help veterans recover at the Air Force Hospital. The 1960’s saw the beginning of scientific research involving pet therapy. Dr. Borris Levinson, an American child psychiatrist, documented his observations of his therapeutic work with clients and dogs. In the 1970’s, Sam and Elizabeth Corson used animals in hospital settings and collected qualitative data. Nursing research on pet therapy’s influence on patient outcomes became prevalent in the 1980’s. And, in the 1990’s, researchers explored pet therapy in a variety of settings, such as the home, hospice, and psychiatric facilities.

Studies have shown the physiological, psychological, and social benefits of animal assisted therapy in hospital settings. When compared to those who did not participate in AAT, patients who engaged in AAT tended to have slower respiratory rates, reduced pain, and matched breathing rates with the therapy dogs, which all indicate a relaxation response in the patients. These patients also reported greater perceptions of happiness, relief/distraction from pain, and a greater sense of calmness. The animal assisted therapy also provided social benefits to the patients. The therapy dogs provided company to patients, helped foster communication, offered connection to the outside world, and helped normalize the hospital setting.

Studies have also confirmed the benefits of living in household with pets. Children who live in households with pets develop empathy and an outward focus (children think about the animals instead of solely focusing on themselves). Pet owners learn nurturing skills by taking care of the animals and tend to experience greater acceptance because animals are nonjudgmental and forgiving. For people who have had negative experiences with physical contact with other people, an animal’s touch can be safe and non-threatening.

So the next time you pass by your pet, give him/her an extra scratch on the head or snuggle to show him/her your appreciation!

— Jennie Tuttle

Resources I used to write this blog include:

Cole, K. M., & Gawlinski, A. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy: The human-animal bond. AACN

Clinical Issues: Advanced Practice in Acute & Critical Care, 11(1), 139-149. Retrieved


Halm, M. A. (2008). The healing power of the human-animal connection. American Journal of

Critical Care, 14(4), 373. Retrieved from (2007). The benefits we experience when pets (animals) are beside us.

Retrieved from

Hooker, S. D., Holbrook Freeman, L., & Stewart, P. (2002). Pet therapy research: A historical

review. Holistic Nursing Practice, 17(1), 17-23. Retrieved from: