Scientists are still figuring out exactly how pet therapy works and to what extent it is effective. According to some studies, when observing animals, the activity of the prefrontal cortex of the cerebral hemispheres of the brain increases – this area is involved in decision-making and is responsible for social interaction. Contact with animals releases endorphins in our bodies – just like playing sports, kissing, or fond memories. Endorphins have an analgesic effect, therefore, pet therapy to some extent reduces the severity of pain syndromes, for example, in fibromyalgia. These same substances reduce stress and anxiety levels, soothe and lift your mood. Contacts with animals, apparently due to the same hormones, normalize high blood pressure and improve the functioning of the cardiovascular system.
This is not to say that anyone animal helps to treat a specific disease. All animals improve the condition of patients in general: thanks to working with animals, patients are more committed to treatment (apparently, it is more interesting to be treated in a good company), experience more positive emotions, relax and even recover faster after anesthesia. Observing animals distracts from your own problems and helps you switch. Contact with animals is communication that helps to combat feelings of isolation in patients with mental disabilities and saves the elderly from loneliness.
But zootherapy also has effects that depend on the particular animal. For example, hippotherapy – horse-riding treatment – is recommended for neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy. Staying on and managing a horse requires physical strength, balance, coordination – and horse riding helps you develop all of these skills. In addition, the horse is an animal with character and needs to be communicated with, even while riding, which helps to develop social skills. It is also nice that self-esteem rises – literally because a person is “on a horse”. Together, this turns hippotherapy into a tool for socialization.
Dolphin therapy has about the same effect on humans. Movement in the water and contact with an intelligent animal develop physically and emotionally, help a person move, perform non-standard actions. And feline therapy, that is, communication with cats is usually recommended to relieve stress: vibrations from purring and watching the soft movements of cats help to relax. When choosing animals, their character is also taken into account. People with disabilities that interfere with movement are selected as companions of calm, phlegmatic animals. For patients who need to be motivated, helped to cope with depression or fear, active animals are suitable.