As I have discussed elsewhere on this site, there are many studies being done to try to establish a link between animal contact and human health. These studies are not exactly conclusive. But the strongest evidence that animals do have a beneficial effect on humans comes from the field of animal-assisted therapy. There are different programs of animal therapy, for different conditions. Some are physical and some are mental conditions. But in almost all cases, there are overwhelming reports of good results from these programs.
One study indicated that animal–human interaction between assistance animals and patients recovering from surgery required 50 percent less pain medication than patients without the assistance animals’ help. Patients reported less pain, and sometimes faster recoveries.
Another interesting article covers a wider field. The article notes that animal assisted therapy is not exactly a new concept. Florence Nightingale remarked about 150 years ago on the benefits of using animals in settings for the mentally ill. Some animal therapy is still being done in this field today.
Modern science has noted that interacting with animals can increase the body’s levels of the chemical oxytocin. This is a kind of bonding chemical, which increases feelings of trust and connection. It also simply makes us feel happy.
In addition to dogs, therapy animals can be from many species. Birds, horses, and even lizards are used by some therapists. Although this article does not mention it, some studies have seen a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure as a result of watching a tank of fish.
One story is told in depth in that same article. A boy named Ryan has autism, and he is in intensive treatment with a speech therapist. This therapist does lots of work with him in the office. But she also works with him outside, so that he may interact with a pony named Happy. Ryan can ride this pony very skillfully, even doing tricks such as weaving in and out of poles. He speaks to the pony and to the therapist the whole time. The therapist notes that Ryan has made improvements in language skills since starting animal therapy, and that he is also “just really good at [horseback riding].”