Dogs and Cats as Hospital Volunteers – 'Pets as Therapy'

by KathleenDuffy

Pets can aid the recovery of patients in hospitals, comfort the elderly and cheer up sick children. But volunteer pets need to have the right temperament.

For thousands of years dogs and cats have been bringing comfort and joy to their owners. Now, that same companionship is bringing physical and mental health benefits to vulnerable people in the community.

The UK charity, 'Pets as Therapy' organises visits by cats and dogs to the elderly residents of nursing homes, hospital and hospice patients and special needs school children.

These visits are of great therapeutic value to those in the community who might be lacking in the physical and emotional contacts that more fortunate people might take for granted.

Therapy Dogs and Cats are Good for People

A therapy Dog Visiting a School
A therapy Dog Visiting a School

Pets as Therapy began in 1983 and since then more than 28.000 dogs have been registered as PAT dogs.  Along with a smaller number of cats, they are known as 'therapy pets'. 

Therapy dogs and cats have an extremely positive effect on the community as a whole and the individuals within it. Their presence cheers people up, encourages a positive mental attitude and banishes the blues. Therapy dog at workFew people can resist the upbeat message sent by a dog's wagging tail or a cat's gentle purr. And best of all, dogs and cats trained to be therapy pets make no distinction between human beings – they love everybody.

Elderly people who are no longer able to look after a pet of their own or have no family to visit them find their spirits lifted and loneliness relieved when they can stroke and talk to a friendly, calm dog or cat. The experience of stroking soft fur may be the only warm human contact that some older people have.

Sick children, including those with autism, find themselves smiling or reacting when a dog enters the room or when a cat is placed nearby or in their arms.

A Few Books About Therapy Pets

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Therapy Pets: The Animal-Human Healing Partnership

Pets love us unconditionally. They're always happy to see us, they encourage us when we're feeling down, and their devotion is touching and reassuring. If this is true for the a...

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Paws & Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs

Dogs have always been our friends and changed our lives for the better. But they may save our lives as well. Seamlessly weaving scientific research with compelling narrative, Pa...

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The Power of Wagging Tails

Foreword Reviews 2011 Book of the Year Honorable Mention (Health Category) Medical studies have consistently shown that patients benefit from therapy dog visits. One recent stud...

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Angel on a Leash: Therapy Dogs and the Lives They Touch

David Frei, the voice of the Westminster Kennel Club and the founder of Westminster's therapy dog charity, Angel On A Leash, shares stories of heartwarming encounters and everyd...

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Medical Benefits of Therapy Pets

Therapy Cats
Therapy Cats

According to  Pets as Therapy, therapy pets lower blood pressure. Their presence triggers the release of endorphins which give rise to feelings of happiness. Patients in regular contact with therapy pets are perceived by staff to be more motivated both physically and mentally, less depressed and more emotionally fulfilled.

Stressed stockbroker

In the USA, Dr. Karen M. Allen, a research scientist at the State University of New York in Buffalo, studied two groups of stockbrokers. Both groups were taking medication for high blood pressure, but only one group had pets. She found that the stockbrokers who owned pets experienced half the increase in blood pressure caused by imposed stressful situations as those who did not own pets. (1)


Whilst pet owners know that their pets are ultra-sensitive and extremely empathetic, science has yet to do the deep research necessary to prove it beyond doubt. Pets as Therapy is setting up research resources in order to scientifically validate the real benefits that pets bring to ill or disabled people.

How a Pet can Be a Therapy Pet Volunteer

Dog and cat sleeping
Dog and cat sleeping

To be considered as a Pets as Therapy dog or cat, the pet goes through a series of tests to ensure it is the right temperament for the job. If it passes the tests, the pet is vaccinated, wormed and checked for fleas by a vet. Nails are clipped, coats are shampooed, records are made – and the dog or cat is then deemed ready to make his or her entry into a new, life-enhancing career.

Whilst on duty, therapy dogs who work for Pets as Therapy will often sport a smart yellow coat with an ID photocard, whilst the owner will also have the ID photocard.

Not only do patients benefit from meeting their therapy pets, but the pets themselves absolutely love it!

To find out more, visit the Pets as Therapy website.


(1) Cited in on line paper, Therapy Dogs in the Long-Term Care Environment by Steve Reiman, President of Therapy Dogs of Vermont.

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Updated: 07/15/2013, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 12/12/2013

Oh, that's so good of you! Thanks you! :)

ologsinquito on 12/12/2013

I'm pinning this to my "Dogs and Puppies" board.

KathleenDuffy on 07/16/2013

Yes, it's fascinating isn't it! They do have a calming effect if they are well suited to their owners. We aren't allowed to own pets where I live unfortunately. thanks for your post PurposeEmbraced.

KathleenDuffy on 07/15/2013

Hi Elias - thanks for your comment. I used to have a dog and a cat and they always cuddled up together in front of the fire. :)

EliasZanetti on 07/15/2013

Very interesting article, Kathleen! Pets certainly have a positive effect on people. The sleeping dog & cat photo is amazing!

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