Spa Wellness: Creature Comforts

Research shows that a wide range of mind-body wellness issues might be eased with the help of our four-legged friends.

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A 2011 Italian study found that after six weeks of therapy sessions with animals, 50% of elderly subjects showed decreased symptoms of geriatric-related depression. In 2010, a Canadian study reported that stroke patients experienced significant increases in their walking speed when dogs were used during gait-retraining rehab. That same year, a study in Austria found that drug-addicted prisoners who participated in dog-assisted training demonstrated an improved ability to regulate their emotions.

The list of research results goes on and on. Around the world, people of all ages who suffer with physical, mental and emotional maladies show improvement when loving animals are involved in their therapy. From casual visits to hospitals or convalescent homes (“animal-assisted activities”) to sessions in which health professionals utilize animals for specific goals (“animal-assisted therapy”), our furry friends help millions of people each year.

Why and how do animal-assisted methods work and what can the wellness community learn from this wing of complementary medicine? DAYSPA spoke to experts in the field to gain a better understanding of the ways in which animals spread healing among their human counterparts.

Man’s Best Friend

According to Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society), a non-profit organization founded in 1977 and dedicated to fostering positive interaction between humans and companion, service and therapy animals, animal-assisted therapy can help people in an extraordinary range of ways:

  • Physically, helping to improve balance, motor skills and wheelchair skills, and to increase stamina for exercise and recreational activities
  • Psychologically, reducing feelings of loneliness and anxiety, and bolstering self-esteem and receptivity to participating in group activities
  • Socially, improving interactions with individuals and groups
  • Cognitively, aiding in long- or short-term memory, increased vocabulary and general verbal skills, improved knowledge of concepts such as size and color, and longer attention spans

It seems that almost anywhere there’s a problem, a friendly animal is likely to make the situation better. “As just one example, petting and brushing an animal as part of physical therapy might help someone improve their fine motor skills,” says Pet Partners marketing coordinator Paula Scott. “Or in mental health settings, animals can help people to talk about things they normally wouldn’t with only a therapist in the room. Or someone with speech issues who might be ashamed to read aloud will do so in the company of a friendly animal. People just feel more comfortable around animals. They don’t feel criticized. They feel loved by the animal no matter what."

Aubrey Fine, Ed.D., psychologist, professor at Cal-Poly Pomona, California, and author of numerous books including the new Our Faithful Companions (Alpine Publications, 2014), has worked with animal-assisted therapy for more than 30 years and speaks to some of the research on its benefits.

“In the late 1970s, research found that petting a dog appeared to reduce blood pressure,” says Fine. “The friendly dog has a calming effect and reduces anxiety. Studies also found that people with cardiovascular disease who had interactions with animals lived longer. Later research finds that these interactions can lower [the stress hormone] cortisol and may increase oxytocin, our ‘love hormone’.”

Research seems to pair almost every human health issue with a potential benefit from interaction with a friendly animal. Animal-assisted therapy with farm animals eased symptoms of psychiatric disorders. People with eating disorders who interacted with dolphins exhibited less destructive behaviors. Equine therapy has long been used for people with skeletal and neurological conditions. The military uses animals in behavioral health therapy. And pain sufferers report a reduced need for medication after spending time with animals.

Pet Projects
Fine uses dogs in his therapy practice for many purposes, not the least of which is as a social lubricant. “People see me differently when I have a kind, warm-hearted animal next to me,” he says. “It helps me develop a relationship. Sometimes people are able to open up and discuss things such as abuse when they have a friendly chin or a paw next to them.”

The psychologist recalls a patient with selective mutism (an anxiety disorder in which a person is generally able to speak but cannot do so in certain social settings). Fine brought in a dog and casually told the patient that all she had to do if she wanted the dog to come to her was say, “Puppy, come.” Sure enough, the patient was able to say those words, which led her to be able to talk to teachers at school, something she previously wasn’t able to do.
“Dogs have been bred for more than 10,000 years,” says Fine. “We know they are successful at engaging humans, protecting them and demonstrating emotional connectivity. They read non-verbal behavior. That’s why in a difficult moment, a dog will come to you.”

Love On 4 Paws serving the Los Angeles area brings therapy animals to hospitals and schools. Coordinated by Suni Cookson, the organization recruits and trains volunteer handlers and animals for the work. “When we visit a hospital,” says Cookson, “we simply stop at the doorways of patients’ rooms and ask if they want a visit.” If the answer is yes, the handler then draws upon his training to facilitate a gentle and satisfying interaction between patient and animal.

Making sure the animal is appropriate for therapy is, of course, key to success. “Some animals are really in tune with other people, whereas some are more in tune with their handlers,” says Cookson. “We can read the body language of a dog to see whether it is comfortable with people. With some breeds the sign of social comfort is that the tail is up. Others show expression with their ears.” Cookson also points out that hospitalized patients often miss their own pets and welcome a visit from an approved friend on four paws