My Shih Tzu, Latte, is like a therapist, personal trainer, and primary care physician all wrapped up into 10 pounds of white fluffiness. When you are bedridden with a cold, she never leaves your side until you are well. When you have a bad day, she is there with a comforting look that says, "Everything is going to be okay." At 5 p.m., she reminds you that you've sat for too long and need to take her for a walk.
It turns out that Latte is doing what most animals naturally do with humans: provide comfort and support.
This type of therapeutic interaction even has a scientific name — animal-assisted therapy (AAT) — and research has shown it helps with a variety of emotional issues like depression, anxiety, and grief.
"The great thing about animals is they don't have a preconceived notion of people," says Dr. Henry Feldman, of the Division of General Internal Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "They provide unconditional love, which encourages interaction and helps people feel more confident."
Animal-assisted therapy in action
Animal-assisted therapy involves interacting regularly with animals for a set time over weeks or months. The get-togethers usually involve dogs and cats in either individual or group settings, and consist of everything from petting to giving treats to just sitting together.
What happens when you interact with animals? Researchers speculate that levels of oxytocin, the "love hormone" that encourages bonding, often increase, as does the production of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical.
Animal-assisted therapy is often used in retirement centers to help people with depression. A study in the June 2013 Anthrozoos found that patients with dementia living in residential care who received 11 weeks of dog-assisted therapy improved their depression scores compared with those who had human-only therapy.
Hospitals also use animal-assisted therapy for patients coping with stressful treatment and recovery. A study in the January 2015 Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology explored how AAT — in this case therapy dogs — affected the well-being of cancer patients who underwent radiation therapy and chemotherapy. The patients received daily 15- to 20-minute animal visits for six weeks, and afterward reported a noticeable increase in their emotional well-being.
AAT is especially helpful for people healing after traumatic events like an accident, the death of a loved one, or catastrophes like the recent Pulse club shootings in Orlando. In fact, Orlando's Trinity Lutheran Church coordinated with Chicago-based Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Comfort Dogs program to bring in golden retrievers to help with grief counseling for survivors, first responders, and volunteers.
Find your animal therapy
Physicians usually "prescribe" animal-assisted therapy, but you may need to be proactive and inquire about AAT and how it may complement your treatment and needs. But you don't need a prescription to tap into AAT's feel-good effects. Pet ownership is one way, but if you are not ready for that responsibility, check with your local senior center about public animal therapy programs, or volunteer with community partners of animal therapy organizations like Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International, and the Good Dog Foundation.
Another option: advertise your services as a local pet sitter or dog walker, or lend a hand to a pet-owning neighbor, friend, or family member. Or you could hang out with Latte for awhile. She would love it.
Learn more about the health benefits of canine companionship in the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report, Get Healthy, Get a Dog.