Mayo Clinic Health Library

Pet therapy: Man's best friend as healer

Updated: 08-25-2012
Photo of Jack, one of Mayo Clinic's service dogs
Jack is a miniature pinscher and service dog at Mayo Clinic

Is medicine going to the dogs? Yes, but in a good way. Pet therapy is gaining fans in health care and beyond. Find out what's behind this growing trend.

What is pet therapy?

Pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders.

Animal-assisted activities, on the other hand, have a more general purpose, such as providing comfort and enjoyment for nursing home residents.

How does animal-assisted therapy work?

Imagine you're in the hospital. Your doctor mentions the hospital's animal-assisted therapy program and asks if you'd be interested. You say yes, and your doctor arranges for someone to tell you more about the program. Soon after that, an assistance dog and its handler visit your hospital room. They stay for 10 or 15 minutes. You're invited to pet the dog and ask the handler questions.

After the visit, you realize you're smiling. And you feel a little less tired and a bit more optimistic. You can't wait to tell your family all about that charming canine. In fact, you're already looking forward to the dog's next visit.

Who can benefit from animal-assisted therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy can significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health problems:

  • Children having dental procedures
  • People receiving cancer treatment
  • People in long-term care facilities
  • People hospitalized with chronic heart failure
  • Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder

And it's not only the ill person who reaps the benefits. Family members and friends who sit in on animal visits say they feel better, too.

Pet therapy is also being used in nonmedical settings, such as universities and community programs, to help people deal with anxiety and stress.

Does pet therapy have risks?

The biggest concern, particularly in hospitals, is safety and sanitation. Most hospitals and other facilities that use pet therapy have stringent rules to ensure that the animals are clean, vaccinated, well trained and screened for appropriate behavior.

It's also important to note the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never received a report of infection from animal-assisted therapy.

Animal-assisted therapy in action

Jack, known as Dr. Jack by his colleagues, is a miniature pinscher and the first facility-based assistance dog (service dog) to join Mayo Clinic's team in Rochester, Minn. A fully credentialed service dog, Jack has worked at Mayo Clinic since 2002.

Jack spends time with patients helping them work toward their recovery goals. For example, Jack and his trainer worked with a 5-year-old girl recovering from spinal surgery. Jack helped her relearn how to walk, taking a step backward each time she took a step forward. She also gave Jack a "checkup" each morning, which helped keep her moving. Eventually, she took Jack for walks with the help of a walker.

In addition to Jack, more than a dozen certified therapy dogs are part of Mayo Clinic's Caring Canines program. They make regular visits to various hospital departments and even make special visits on request.