Why Does Pet Therapy Work? (It’s Not Just Cute Dogs)

[♪ INTRO ] Maybe you’ve been here: It’s finals season, and you’re walking
across campus, when suddenly a big, beautiful sign catches your attention: Exam Week Therapy
Dogs. And when you show up, it’s a giant room
full of well-trained, adorable puppers and college students leaving with looks of stress-free
bliss. Pet therapy has been around in some form or
another for over a hundred years. And today, it’s part of programs everywhere
from hospitals to college campuses. Many studies have shown that it works, too,
and that pets can relieve anxiety, stress, and provide comfort. But these effects don’t just happen because
animals are cute. Instead, they actually say a lot more about
what it means to be human. Although it likely existed in some form before
then, pet therapy was first popularized around 1860, thanks to the famous nurse Florence
Nightingale. She noticed that patients with chronic illness
felt better when they had an animal partner by their side. Now, these programs can be found basically
everywhere there are people. The technical term for this treatment is animal-assisted
therapy, or AAT. There are all kinds of variations, but two
are especially common: In one type of program, a handler will bring
an animal to an outside location, like a college campus or nursing home, for people to interact
with. The other kind is more structured and often
involves a counselor or social worker. This type of therapy can include everything
from playing with a dog to caring for a horse, and it’s often combined with other forms
of treatment depending on the patient. Regardless of the program, though, multiple
studies have shown that AAT has a positive, measurable effect, both in those with and
without clinical conditions. For example, several have shown that petting
and playing with a dog can improve patients’ moods by decreasing their distress and pain. Specifically, a visiting dog can boost your
body’s production of endorphins, which ultimately trigger the release of chemicals that act
like painkillers and produce euphoria. Dog visits have also been shown to decrease
levels of cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine in patients, which are all stress hormones. Like most things in science, there are some
papers that haven’t found such significant results. But for the most part, researchers are pretty
confident that AAT works. It just might not be because of the reasons
you’d think. For one, these effects don’t just apply
to animal lovers: They appear in people who feel neutral about animal companions, too. And it’s not just because the animals are
super outgoing and always excited to see you, either, like dogs typically are. Pretty much all animal companions do the trick
for these kinds of therapies. Rabbits, horses, cats … you name it! Even animal farms full of goats and cows are
helpful. The effects aren’t even because these animals
are soft or fluffy. Several studies have also shown that fish,
bearded dragons, and crickets can help increase focus and positive emotions. Instead, the secret to AAT seems to be about
the bond between humans and animals in general. After all, whether you’re sick, stressed,
or just trying to process life, animal companions won’t judge you. But they will be there for you. Most studies have focused on AAT’s effects
and not the underlying mechanism, so it’s hard to say for sure that this is the case. And it probably varies depending on the person
and the animal, too. But in general, an unconditional, non-judgmental
relationship with animals could give patients a safe place to process emotions or try new
tasks. One study also suggested they could be a helpful
distraction from other problems or symptoms, or a place to practice social interactions. And there is some evidence for the importance
of the human-animal relationship in studies that have been done so far. In a study published in the journal of Anxiety,
Stress and Coping in 2003, 58 people without clinical diagnoses were presented with a stressful
situation: They were told that they might be asked to hold a tarantula sitting elsewhere
in the room. Those who considered this while petting an
animal — whether it was a soft, fluffy rabbit or a hard-shelled turtle — experienced a
reduction in stress and anxiety. But those who were petting a plush toy version
of those animals didn’t display the same effects. Which makes sense, if the relationship and
interactions with the animal are key. On the flip side, though, other studies with
dementia patients have shown that robot dogs are effective at reducing stress and anxiety. These robots looked, sounded, and behaved
a lot like the real thing, and the patients responded to them a lot like they did with
real animals. So the benefits of the relationship were probably
replicated — unlike with the plush toys in the other study. It would help to have some solid research
to pin down this mechanism, but it seems like a promising one. Of course, there are other positive side effects
of being around animals, too. Like, playing with a dog or helping out at
an animal farm will increase your amount of physical activity, and exercise is a well-known
way to boost your endorphin levels. But at the end of the day, when it comes to
animal-assisted therapy, it seems to be mostly about the bond. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Psych! You might love hanging out with your dog,
but have you ever wondered if they actually love you back? Don’t worry; we’ve got an episode for
that. [♪ OUTRO ]

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100 Responses

  1. New Message says:

    I see she's wearing her school clothes today.

  2. The Creature says:

    No, it's cute cats to, and any other cute animal.
    Joking aside, really interested to learn about this. I have a pet dog, so learning about any way she can help me, be it now or in the future, is great

  3. Zaman Siddiqui says:

    3:49 Anyone else think of Robo Puppy from Futurama?

  4. M Silvestre says:

    I never thought I'd hear the word "puppers" in a scientific video. Thanks, SciShow Psych!

  5. cherry875 says:

    Had animal therapy. It was calming to cuddle little chickens and pigs.

  6. Greg Hartwick says:

    Can I have a rhinoceros?

  7. Dorissa Claire says:

    Watching this while petting my cat after a doctor appointment and taking half a dozen medications. Pets definitely help ?

  8. Nico VanEeckhoutte says:

    Please do a video on ASMR!

  9. Cedric Lothritz says:

    The scientific answer is … aww, DOGGIES!!

  10. iReppo says:

    Can I cuddle with a velociraptor? Need to calm my nerves

  11. IceLuxray says:

    so apparently humans pack bonding to anything has an evolutionary purpose. now let's see someone try AAT with a roomba.

  12. PatrickAllenNL says:

    I thought this wpuld be about pets getying therapy or dog training lol

  13. Mara Haslam says:

    I want a shark shirt.

  14. MagnuMagnus says:

    This therapy is probably counterproductive if you're allergic to many of these beasts.

  15. Solace The Satanist Girl says:

    There was literally a cat walking around the uni library half an hour ago :')

  16. Lift Pizzas says:

    Probably related to the reason that being surrounded by nature also makes us feel better. Maybe some day humans will figure out that living in cities is stupid.

  17. Bophades Nutz says:

    I got my pet boa, Cleo, right as I started felling the stress of how close I was coming to not graduating high school. But holding her, looking into those innocent eyes, watching her noodle about and explore the world…. It made all of that melt away. I love my lil girl <3

  18. Perun42 says:


  19. niamhnyx says:

    Brit, was that you with the horse? If it was, you look so blissful!

  20. 巨人の肩 says:

    "humans & animals"
    What are humans?
    Shouldn't we say humans & other animals ?

  21. Ellie Smile says:

    If I ever need therapy again, I want this therapy!! haha

  22. TO5TADA says:

    Animal companions are helpful but also food.

  23. Glen Hunt says:

    Dogs feel better after petting me.

  24. KDiGee says:

    But I like tarantulas 🙁

  25. Beacon of Wierd says:

    Animals do judge people! I once tried to pet a horse through an electric fence while drunk on the way home, the horse went up to me so I started to pet it's face, then my arm touched the electric fence and both me and the horse got a shock and the horse ran away, giving me the most judgemental stare in my life! Every time I walk past that horse I can see how it judges me for that one drunken mistake 🙁

  26. Randy James says:

    What about dogs that have been mistreated before — perhaps by a male? Dogs can be prejudicial. In these situations, I've been stressed by their presence. But overall, pets are indeed a stress reliever.

  27. YCCCm7 says:

    Hold on a second.

    So if interacting with a robot animal has comparable effects to interacting with a real animal, does this imply the humorous concept of "waifu androids" might actually provide some of the benefits of a significant other, psychologically?

    If so, that's freaking crazy, yo.

  28. Illien Galene says:

    In Germany there is a Alzheimer Station with Alpacas! I train to become a teacher for disabled students and train a AAT Rabbit! Her name is Béatrice! ???

  29. Number Eight or Nine? says:

    Finally got a cat. Helps me a WHOLE lot. Something about interaction and caring for something else.

  30. microbuilder says:

    Sounds like this ties into the "why does nature make you feel better" video pretty well.

  31. Master Therion says:

    Pet therapy absolutely can work! It took a few therapy sessions, but my dog is much better now.

  32. TheDarkLordSano says:

    Non-Judgmental? Are you sure cats fall in that Category?

  33. Spiral Python says:

    Watching YouTube whilst my kids are at an AAT centre interacting with farm animals…. meantime I am sitting in sunshine with my dogs…

  34. Annika Victoria says:

    My dog helps me so much with my chronic pain and illness ??

  35. SzDavidHUN says:

    Well it's time to build a robot dog. Or fox. Robot dog with fox body. All the good things, with some extras, but without the responsibility 🙂
    Afraid of srewing up a living things life? Well just roll back, reinstall, etc, and find the optimal solution w/o ruining the life of the best living things of the world 🙂

  36. SzDavidHUN says:

    There was an exam, which made me very stressful. Then I met with two squirrels. I walked further with the calmness of a capybara, and a smile with the size of the capybara 😀

  37. caustic says:

    A few times when I've been in a psych hospital they've provided pet therapy, usually a poodle or golden retriever. I felt a noticeable difference after getting to pet the dogs and just chill with them. The hospital is such a cold, clinical setting but the warmth of an animal presence cuts through that negative atmosphere for me.

  38. JLW says:

    No robot dog can replace my old good 17old famili member sleeping close to me:)

  39. PuppyLuv2504 says:

    Topic idea…actors and actresses that play a couple, only to become a real life couple…how often does that happen and why?

  40. SaucerJess says:


  41. Nagi Noriette says:

    I volunteer every week at my local animal shelter, and after the cleaning and work is done, I usually spend an hour or so socializing with the cats (we have a cat wing and a dog wing, I work in the cat wing). It's amazing what spending some time with animals can do for mental health!

  42. Guy Numbers says:

    God I hate animals

  43. Jabberwocky Draco says:


  44. SnorlaxRae says:

    I'm disabled with a therapy pupper. I'm able to calm enough to go outside for short periods with her at my side. My life was one of anxiety and solitude before her.

  45. Peter Austin says:

    Meeting an empathic, caring, non-judgmental person has a similar effect.

  46. Custos says:

    There's also been research on whether the size of the dog makes a difference. In short, avoid small, harder to train dogs like pugs, papillons, and chihuahuas.

  47. Nicolas Gilly says:

    I want to love a porcupine!!!

  48. HeyHay says:

    I got like 30% better when I got home from the hospital and I had my cat back with me. She’s the best.

  49. HeyHay says:

    Sic show: “-even animal farms-“

    Me: highschool flashback ????????

  50. Sarah Lake says:

    Watching this with my non-trained pupper giving me a hug and kisses.

    I suffer from severe generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and complex PTSD, and my pupper is always there to make me feel so much better.

  51. Isabell Xie says:

    Just to chime in with what she said about it being about the bond and research not determining the mechanism at work, it is well researched and documented that a non-judgmental, unconditionally supportive relationship is therapeutic, it is what Rogerian therapy aka human-centered therapy is based on and it is a therapeutic element that most all therapists use. Reminds me of the study where participants were asked to climb a steep slope and they rated how hard it looked to them. The study found that the same slope appears less daunting if you had a friend with you and who would climb it with you. I think all of these examples share the same psychological mechanism, that humans are mentally stronger when they have a supportive bond with someone or something. I suspect this also applies to people who have a personal bond with their Higher Power.

  52. Dan and Candace Parrott says:

    Answer this: Why don't other species regularly seek out different species as [non-symbiotic] companions or "pets". Why is it only the norm in humans to do this?

  53. Fauler Perfektionist says:

    How does the notion of a tarantula as a pet square with the notion that people tend to resemble their pets?

  54. Ben Rhodes says:

    Why do we like music that makes us sad?

  55. Wolfferoni says:

    What about those kids plush toys that make sounds when you hug them and have basic movements? Would those be considered robot animals?

  56. Boudicca94 says:

    Pet therapy for college students? Not in my country. 🙁

  57. P DaPhuuLz says:

    i'd like one android pet too.

  58. YiFan Jian says:

    I think this should be named human assisted therapy. Let's be honest, the animals do the heavy lifting while the human doesn't really do anything.

  59. moxiousch says:

    I really like this presenter! She has a really pleasant, engaging voice and way of speaking. She made pet therapy super interesting!

  60. Nory-Chan says:

    Shout Out at all my ADHD peeps who's pets have a better internal clock so they keep you on a type of routine by having to care for them.

  61. Van says:

    My sweet pet tarentula's always there for me, she always asks for cuddles, awww

    People are a little jelly, they're all screaming when i take her outside !

  62. Pixie Fairy says:

    That shirt calmed my nervous self. Thanks!

  63. Dan Boyle says:

    Sorry if I seem insensitive, but I have a question.

    Am I the only one who thinks that giving a robot dog to a dementia patient is just really mean?

  64. Corginator 7 says:

    Not enough dog pictures

  65. Delluvian says:

    Hank: How about an episode about pet therapy?
    Brit: I like sharks.
    Hank: Well, I was thinking more of puppies and kittens.
    Brit: And sharks?
    Hank: No sharks.
    Brit: But I want sharks!!!
    Hank: Sharks are not therapeutic pets!
    Brit: How about just a small one? You know, in a tank?
    Hank: I said no!
    Brit: *pouts* Ok. But then I want to wear my shark shirt!
    Hank: *sigh* Fine…
    Brit: Yay!!!

  66. From Scratch Aunty Bindy says:

    I've also seen visits between kindergarten children and toddlers with the elderly have a similar effect for the elderly. The littlies are non judgy because they're curious and sweet whilst the elderly enjoyed the chats, telling their well worn tales to new ears and in some cases feeling more productive again helping littlies (and vice versa)

  67. Margo Anon says:

    I trained my dog to be calm, and now he helps me so much during tough times when I struggle with chronic pain. We go outside together and people like to throw the ball for him, and then we start chatting… and so that helps me feel less isolated as well. Any loving animal can make such a positive change in a person's life!

  68. Kristi Marie says:

    I've never understood why people get stressed out over exams. Although, I'm happy they do cause I get to see puppies!!!!

  69. Izuriel Palanayukei says:

    Pet therapy- another thing you don't need on a plane! 🙂

  70. jnzkngs says:

    Because animals can't talk and tell you that 99% of your problems are caused by your own behavior. ?

  71. watcherFox says:

    Plush animals have long been used to soothe and relax children. I suspect the reason they wouldn't be as effective for adults is likely because most adults think themselves too old for that kind of thing.

  72. Nylak Otter says:

    My mother handles therapy dogs for veterans, and I train individuals with PTSD or panic disorder to train their own service dogs. But I know ESA can be important, as well.

    My service dog literally saved my life, and continues to assist me on a regular basis. He works, but I know that just my interacting with/training him is as helpful as the medical service he provides. I like sharing that experience with other handler/dog teams.

    I know I am an extreme example, but I love working with animals, and when someone in distress benefits from training and socializing their animal, it makes everyone involved so much better.

  73. Ennis Abel says:

    Bit of a long response here, sorry.
    Question: what, if any, are the known effects of having inanimate comfort animals/objects on their own, instead of being contrasted to living animals (eg having a stuffed animal vs not having one in a stressful situation)? I know I felt better during finals having my stuffed tiger on my lap, but I wonder if it had to do more with personal emotional connection (placebo effect?) rather than just having the object itself, and I know one person's story makes for an anecdote and not a case study.
    I'm also curious as to whether there are certain demographics that respond better to stuffed toys than others; I know I (an autistic person) seem to benefit more from having a stuffed animal with me and feel more comfortable in public, whereas my (non-autistic) sister doesn't get it.

  74. Brian Emerson says:

    After watching this video, I turned to my dog, hugged him, and said, "Did you hear that boy? The lady in the video says you reduce cortisol levels. Yes, you do, buddy!" I guess that doesn't sound as cute as it is.

  75. TheDragorin says:

    my psyc professor did a big study on this and found when young children given math questions to solve in front of a crowd actually had higher cortisol levels when a dog was nearby.

  76. Maddie Briggs says:

    The main difference with the robots vs plush toys is that the robots respond to specific cues – when you pat it's head, it makes happy noises and movements; when you pat it's tail, it makes annoyed noises and movements.

  77. Sara Baker says:

    I have a therapy duck. She's awesome.

  78. nohsara says:

    too bad I actually get more stressed trying to find time to go see the dogs that are sometimes brought in on my campus

  79. nohsara says:

    lol I wouldn't get upset if I was asked to hold a tarantula anyway. They're pretty cool, and sorta cute

  80. Yoël Knopf says:

    I volunteer at a rescue place that puts abandoned and/or 'to be put down' cats and dogs up for adoption, as well as a horse ranch that provides riding as therapy (Equine Assisted Therapy). And I have to say, as someone who is currently dealing with the stress of studying for a university degree, I find both those jobs as therapeutic for me as it is for helping others. : )

  81. Wes4one7 says:

    hmm.. maybe we shouldn't eat them then, huh?

  82. Jynx C. says:

    Robot: Would you like to play a game… of bonding?

  83. Planet S says:

    I'd rather have the tarantula, i have one myself and she's super cute, spiders are underrated!

  84. coughdrop01 says:

    that wasn't at my college and now I feel very deprived

  85. Iago Silva says:

    2:53 Get a room, these two

  86. Heathrr moorr says:

    What college do I have to go to for finals therapy dogs that's the real question here

  87. Daniel Bickford says:

    "Animal companions won't judge you" apparently you don't have a cat

  88. susannahXD says:

    I think it's because animals give us a sense of importance and responsibility because they are intrinsically reliant on us. Their dependence on us makes us step into the role of the responsible and capable adult, even when we might feel pretty hopeless or ineffectual in other situations in our life.

  89. Archi Teuthis says:

    I'm surprised oxytocin wasn't mentioned. Oxytocin isn't just linked to breast feeding and orgasms – those are just the most intense connections oxytocin forms – its also linked to hugging, shaking hands, and yes, even petting animals. Studies indicate a lack of oxytocin causes a number of mood and neurological disorders, and doing things like playing with a dog literally relieve certain kinds of stress.

  90. RickySTT says:

    So, does this work on people (like me) who get super nervous around dogs and cats? Does the type of animal matter? I do not get nervous around lizards or spiders.

  91. Agent 47 says:

    I'm autistic and epileptic and i have lupus and fibromyalgia and I have a therapy dog. Her name is Shelby. She is awesome!

  92. The Watcher says:

    Id be like "oh cool, a turatula! Where?" In second grade someone brought a nice rose turantula in to class, and I haven't been afraid of them since.

  93. Elena Komleva says:

    Too bad we kill billions of animals each week. I am talking about factory farms.

  94. Channy Chan says:

    What are the potential effects of these interactions on the animals? Is there any research done on that?

  95. Laura Gadille says:

    My cat saved my life. I suffer from chronic depression and anixety. She helps with my demons.

  96. Illien Galene says:

    I start doing AAT with my rabbit at a day care centre for elderly people. Looking forward to it.

  97. EloquentTroll says:

    I am considering an emotional support honey badger. They're less cuddly than a cat, but my anxiety will be so much better when it mauls the people who stress me out

  98. J.J. Kuchenmeister says:

    My girl kitty is dangerously smart, and she seems to know when my depression is going to hit me, before I do.

  99. Hiroshi loves You says:

    So my channel is therapeutic?! ?

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