Pets for Pain Relief: Man’s Best Friend Brings Joy to All

For many children, adolescents, teens and adults managing chronic pain, depression or anxiety, interactions with domesticated animal companions — dogs, cats, bunnies, birds and more — improve mood and self-esteem, lower blood pressure and decrease anxiety.

Read about the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) pet therapy program in Pain-Free Living’s “Healing Power of Animals” series.

Man’s best friend brings joy to all

Many hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and correctional institutions are shifting their attention to animal-assisted therapies — activities designed to help ease patients’ and inmates’ anxiety and invoke a sense of calm during stressful situations.

“If a patient is uncomfortable or stressed, a dog can be a nice distraction and remind them of something pleasant,” says Mandi Bulette Coakley, RN, PhD, FNAP, AHN-BC, staff specialist and cofounder of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) pet therapy program.

According to Coakley, a visit from a trained and loveable canine companion improves a patient’s energy level and overall mood, decreases the sense of loneliness, lowers blood pressure, decreases pain, and more.

“Patients report that [a pet therapy visit] makes them feel less tired and more connected to the outside world…and the visit is meaningful to them,” she says.

With this holistic approach to healing in mind, Coakley’s more recent research focuses on complementary and integrative therapies and their effects beyond patient experiences.

She has authored numerous articles on therapeutic touch and pet therapy, including the study “Exploring a Pet Therapy Encounter on Patients, Handlers, and Nurses,” supported by the Magellan Fund. The study looked at the effects of pet therapy on patients and staff and found the healing effects of pet therapy are felt hospital-wide.

“The handlers take great joy in the fact that their dog is helping clinicians and staff as well as patients…so much so, one volunteer told me they have to plan an extra 45 minutes just getting through the hospital because everyone wants to see the dogs.”

Pet therapy provides the following benefits:

• promotes interaction with others
• reduces anxiety
• lessens depression
• lifts spirits and decreases the sense of loneliness
• lowers blood pressure
• decreases cardiovascular risk factors
• decreases pain levels
• increases energy levels
• improves overall mood


About Massachusetts General Hospital

Massachusetts General Hospital Pet Therapy Program provides patients with the opportunity to receive a visit from a furry, friendly, and specially trained dog and a qualified handler/volunteer. Since the program launched in 2003, more than 45,000 patients and staff have received visits from the hospital’s pet friends.

Read more inspirational stories in Pain-Free Living’s “Healing Power of Animals” series.

Maureen McCarthy is the editorial director of Pain-Free Living.

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