Comfort Animals in Healthcare: Benefits for Both Patients and Medical Professionals

by Amy Brooksbank | Oct 30, 2023 |
Comfort Animals in Healthcare: Benefits for Both Patients and Medical Professionals

In an era marked by the relentless pursuit of innovative therapies for mental health and medical conditions, the comforting presence of animals has emerged as an increasingly recognized and applied mode of healing. The concept of comfort animals, often referred to as emotional support animals (ESAs), has transcended mere companionship to become a formidable therapeutic intervention. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, or cognitive function. Comfort animals offer solace, alleviate distress, and, in many instances, contribute to the rehabilitation and well-being of individuals in medical and mental health settings.

Notably, the beneficiaries of having comfort animals in medical settings includes the healthcare workers themselves. Alongside studies of their effects on patients, there has been research on the impact of comfort animals on healthcare professionals that demonstrates interaction with these animals buffers a common characteristic of working in the medical field: stress. As doctors, nurses and other personnel seek new positions, healthcare staffing agencies can help place these professionals in practices that feature alternative therapies like employing comfort animals.

How Are Comfort Animals Used in Medical Settings?

Comfort animals act as non-judgmental companions, offering unwavering emotional support, which is particularly vital in conditions where the psychological state of patients significantly affects their recovery. A 2016 meta-analysis underscores the positive effects of interactions with animals in hospital settings. Patients reported a marked reduction in anxiety levels, decreased pain perception, and an overall improvement in emotional well-being. The use of comfort animals has been adopted as a legitimate avenue augmenting traditional therapeutic approaches for a variety of needs.

Pediatric Ward Healing

Pediatric wards frequently employ comfort animals to facilitate the healing process of young patients undergoing challenging medical treatments. Therapeutic encounters with these animals evoke a calming effect, potentially reducing the need for sedative medications, which may have undesirable side effects. Beyond this, comfort animals contribute to an environment more conducive to healing by offering a momentary respite from sterile hospital surroundings, often intimidating to children.

Chronic Condition Management

Comfort animals have extended their reach to serve individuals struggling with chronic medical conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases. Research on heart patients examined the effects of a 12-minute visit with a therapy dog. The results showed animal-assisted therapy improves cardiopulmonary pressures, neurohormone levels, and anxiety in patients hospitalized with heart failure. Such findings underscore the potential utility of comfort animals in the management of physiological stress, further emphasizing their broader therapeutic role within medical settings.

comfort animals

What Types of Mental Health Conditions Can These Animals Support?

Legend has it that Sigmund Freud recognized the impact of having his Chinese chow, Jofi, in his office during sessions. Since then, the use of comfort animals in mental health applications has matured. It now offers significant improvements in people struggling with a range of mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and autism spectrum disorders.

Anxiety and Depression

One of the most prominent applications of comfort animals is in alleviating anxiety and depressive disorders. The presence of an animal companion, such as a dog or cat, can mitigate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Interacting with these animals releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and reducing stress, resulting in enhanced emotional stability and reduced anxiety levels.

Substance Use Recovery

Many rehabilitation centers have embraced AAT. In fact, equine therapy has become a popular treatment option at recovery facilities. The Addiction Center reports that equine therapy is especially helpful for building critical relationship skills in recovering addicts. Taking care of a horse builds trust; which can help with developing boundaries, learning non-verbal communication skills, feeling connected and needed, neutralizing negative emotions, among other benefits.

Autism Spectrum

The role of equine therapy extends to aiding individuals on the autism spectrum. A systemic review of research on equine therapy showed that interactions with horses offer sensory stimulation, emotional engagement, and cognitive development for individuals with autism. This novel approach offers a holistic means of addressing the unique needs of those on the spectrum and has garnered attention as a complementary therapeutic strategy.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Comfort animals also offer a lifeline to individuals grappling with PTSD, a condition characterized by debilitating episodes of anxiety and hyperarousal. Research on PTSD patients indicates that comfort animals, when integrated into therapy, can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of PTSD-related symptoms. Their constant companionship provides a source of comfort and security, facilitating the healing process for those who have experienced trauma.

locum tenens

What’s the Scientific Basis for the Effectiveness of Comfort Animals?

The use of comfort animals is not merely anecdotal; it rests on a well-established scientific basis. Numerous studies have explored the physiological and psychological mechanisms underlying the efficacy of these animal companions.

The release of oxytocin during interactions with animals is a critical component of their therapeutic effect. Oxytocin is referred to as the “love hormone” because it promotes social bonding, trust, and emotional well-being. This neurobiological response to animals is well-documented in research, serving as a cornerstone for understanding the benefits of comfort animals.

Another pivotal element in the therapeutic equation is the distraction provided by comfort animals. In medical settings, particularly, the presence of an animal can divert a patient’s focus from pain and discomfort, enabling the body’s innate healing mechanisms to operate more effectively.

Furthermore, the unconditional companionship offered by comfort animals fosters a sense of security and trust, critical in the context of mental health. The bond between a person and a comfort animal is an attachment that provides emotional stability and can mitigate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Healthcare staffing agencies

Four-legged Friends Forever

Comfort animals, in both medical and mental health settings, have emerged as an invaluable therapeutic resource. Their impact on patients and individuals struggling with mental health conditions is rooted in a scientific basis that underscores the physiological and psychological mechanisms underlying their efficacy. A positive side-effect is that healthcare staff who work alongside ESAs also glean many of the same benefits as their patients. When choosing where to practice, medical professionals should feel comfortable collaborating with their healthcare staffing agencies to explore legitimate work environment considerations – like whether the office embraces AAT.

Animal lovers have long known that connecting with these creatures offers solace, support, and distraction in a holistic manner. The use of comfort animals is not merely a trend; it is a dynamic manifestation of the evolving understanding of the human-animal bond and the profound benefits it can bring to the world of healthcare.


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