The many mental health benefits of therapy pets

When a person pets or cuddles a therapy animal, their body releases endorphins and other hormones that contributes to the overall sense of well-being and improved health.

Most people love dogs, and there’s many good reasons for that. Whether you own a dog or just love the idea of a dog, there are many psychological benefits associated with having a canine companion in your life. Numerous research studies help to point out that dogs improve their human companion’s mental and emotional and physical health in some surprising ways, and at every stage of our lives.

Kids and Dogs

One pediatric study found that children aged 3-5 years old with dogs at home were more sociable and well-behaved than were their dog deprived peers. Findings from this study focused on physical activity and social–emotional developmental benefits of family dog ownership for preschoolers. Apparently, the family dog can help young children have better relationships with friends, family, and community.

Studies conducted in 2018 show that when children interact with dogs on a regular basis, moods are improved, and stress is less of a factor – including clinically identified stress symptoms. Pets of all variety used in a therapy support system have also been shown to help children with autism to be more engaged socially.

Dogs help adults stay active and social

As study of 43 pairs of older adult dog owners and non-dog owners, matched on a range of demographic variables discovered that dog-owner participants added 22 min to their overall time spent walking, and they walked 2760 additional steps per day. These folks also walked faster than did study participants with no dog, and they tended to spend less time sitting down.

Pet Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is defined as a goal directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. Pet therapy is used in many disciplines of the medical and clinical fields to improve physical, social, emotional, or cognitive functions and to support a person’s well-being.

In one study review that included patients with dementia animal-assisted therapy was shown to improve a person’s mental and physical health. Therapy animals induced an automatic relaxation response, reduces the feeling of anxiety while lowering the patient’s sense of loneliness. AAT also helped improve the patient’s access to memories. It also helped to reduce blood pressure and improves cardiovascular health, decreased the need for some medications, and improved symptoms of physical pain.

When a person pets or cuddles a therapy animal, their body releases endorphins and other hormones that contributes to the overall sense of well-being and improved health. Therapy animals can come in the form of fish, cats, dogs and even horses. Recent studies of elderly patients used robots disguised as animals that have similar positive effects without concern for allergies, infections, or biting. These animal robots can reduce stress and anxiety in people with dementia and decrease the use of psychoactive medications and pain medications among them.


In a study conducted in 2015 showed that pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than were non-pet owners. Researchers concluded that companion animals can be a catalyst for improving several dimensions of human social relationships, ranging from incidental social interaction and getting to know people, through to formation of new friendships. Pets seem to bring people together in surprising ways, helping to form tangible opportunities for social interaction and emotional support.

In conclusion

From all of the evidence provided in recent studies, and with social isolation and loneliness on the increase for people of all demographics, pets may be a very important factor in developing healthy children, supporting the mental health of individuals, families and communities.


Dr. Jenny Holland, PsyD

Dr. Holland is a psychotherapist practicing in Sonoma County California, providing cutting edge, integrative and evidence-based mental health care, proven effective with depression and anxiety, life transitions; pregnancy, parenting, ageing, loss, and caring for a parent or loved one during a health crisis or decline.

Contact Dr. Holland to reserve an appointment at 707-479-2946.


Article sources:

Effectiveness of the dog therapy for patients with dementia – a systematic review

The influence of dog ownership on objective measures of free-living physical activity and sedentary behavior in community-dwelling older adults: a longitudinal case-controlled study

The relationship between dog ownership, dog play, family dog walking, and preschooler social–emotional development: findings from the PLAYCE observational study

The Pet Factor – Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support