Benefits of Pet Therapy for People With COPD

How to Choose the Right Pet Based on Your Limitations

Dog Taking a Nap

Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, has gained attention in recent years as a means to support people living with disability and life-threatening illnesses. Pets are believed to offer intangible benefits that can enhance a person's quality of life while relieving social isolation and encouraging physical activity.

Nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, and rehabilitation centers are just some of the facilities that now integrate animal-assisted therapy into their client services.

While the benefits of pet therapy have not been established for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), there are some reasonable conclusions one can draw from research into the use of pets in supporting the elderly, disabled, or people living with a chronic or mental illness.

Benefits of Pet Therapy

From a modern standpoint, pet therapy was initially used as an adjunct to treatment for people with mental illness, including older people with dementia. It didn't take long, however, before the benefits were recognized in other fields of medicine.

In terms of quantifiable research, pet ownership has regularly been shown to reduce high blood pressure in persons experiencing stressful situations. COPD, by its very nature, is associated with both stress-related disability and acute episodes of stress associated with flare-ups.

A 2014 study from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine further looked at the subjective benefit of animal-assisted therapy and suggested that pet ownership among the disabled and elderly may help:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Offer a short-term reduction in blood pressure
  • Alleviate loneliness and depression
  • Enhance a person's will to live as well
  • Provide distraction from chronic pain or discomfort
  • Deliver comfort during periods of acute illness

For dog owners, the benefits may even extend to improved physical health. Daily exercise is central to slowing the progression of COPD and reducing the risk of exacerbations. A daily dog-walk will not only improve your exercise tolerance, it can help boost your feelings of confidence and self-esteem.

Challenges and Considerations

While pets may provide companionship and improve health outcomes, not every pet is right for every owner. In fact, the wrong pet can have the opposite effect, adding physical and emotional stress that is well beyond the capacity of the owner.

When choosing a pet, there are several ways to ensure you find the right one:

  • Choose a pet that suits your temperament. If you are quiet and live a relatively sedentary life, an older pet may be a better choice. If you want a lively pet but aren't in the best of health, choose something small and fun like a Yorkshire terrier.
  • Allergies to pet dander could aggravate COPD symptoms. Consider animals with less fur and shorter hair. Remember that you need to keep them well-groomed and to vacuum your carpet and furniture frequently.
  • A new puppy or kitten may be something that you really want, but take the time to consider if you have the energy to train one. If not, it may be better to find a dog or cat that already knows how to heel or won't use your furniture as a scratching post.
  • If you plan to walk a dog, choose one that is appropriate to your physical limitations. You will certainly want to challenge yourself, but not overwork yourself. On the other hand, don't get a small dog and assume that you'll get the same amount of exercise as walking a medium or large dog. Choose the one that is right for your physical capacity.
  • If you are unable to take care of a cat or dog, consider others types of pets including a bird, fish, or exotic reptile. Before doing so, however, speak with a veterinarian to ensure you understand how to properly care for the animal and what, if any, zoonotic diseases you may be exposed to. Make sure your doctor is also in the loop.

By choosing the right pet, people can improve their quality of life well beyond measure. Take your time, look around, and you'll know when you've found the perfect companion.

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Article Sources

  • Barker S.; Knisely J.; McCain N. et al. "Exploratory study of stress-suffering response patterns from interaction with a therapy dog." Anthrozoos. 2010; 23(1):79-91. DOI: 10.2752/175303710X12627079939341.
  • Cherniak, E. and Cherniak, A. "The Benefit of Pets and Animal-Assisted Therapy to the Health of Older Individuals." ​Curr Gerontol Geriatr Res. 2014; 2014: 623203. DOI: 10.1155/2014/623203.
  • Herzog H. "The impact of pets on human health and psychological well-being: fact, fiction, or hypothesis?" Curr Direct Psych Sci. 2011; 20(4):236-9. DOI: 10.1177/0963721411415220.