Almost everyone has heard about pet therapy at least once in their lives, however, its origins and benefits are probably still unknown to most. The first evidence showing the positive and therapeutic effects of the contact with animals on the human psyche and on some pathologies dates back to the last century; the expression "pet-therapy" was introduced by child psychiatrist Boris M. Levinson in 1964, who observed that the presence of his Pomeranian during the sessions was beneficial to his patients.
Currently, pet therapy is expanding all over the world, and the international scientific research regarding the effectiveness of this practice is increasing; most studies have underlined the potential employment of animals – such as dogs, cats, horses, dolphins – as care tools to support people who live separated from their loved ones, in hospitals or nursing homes: the animals’ presence encourages social interactions, offering starting points for conversations. This is extremely beneficial, for example, to all people with a noise spectrum disorder; specifically, the presence of a dog during the therapeutic sessions turned out to be particularly useful, causing an increase of the attention levels and the contact with people, in addition to a reduction of “behavioral stereotypes”, repeated movements without apparent purpose that often characterize the disorder.
The animals' ability to stimulate emotions and social interactions plays a significant role not only in treatment paths but also in the educational context. Several studies promote the relationship between children and animals, highlighting its effectiveness in terms of the betterment of learning abilities and the reduction of aggressiveness. Furthermore, animals facilitate social integration into the school environment, thus helping children and teenagers characterized by pathologies of growth delay. In addition to that, animals can establish a special relationship during playing moments, causing the child to interact not only with other children, but also with adults; different kinds of research have demonstrated the benefits of growing up with an animal, such as the improvement of self-esteem, empathy, and sense of responsibility.
The mechanism behind the effects described above is still an open field of study. Some researchers state that the presence of an animal in a stressful situation is associated with a reduction of anxiety, heartbeat, and blood pressure. Furthermore, contact with an animal seems to cause a reduction in the level of cortisol (the hormone responsible for the stress response of the organism) in the blood, as well as an increase in the quantity of endorphine and dopamine (hormones and neurotransmitters that determine positive emotions, relaxation and stress reduction) and oxytocin, which improves mood and interpersonal relationships, secreted by the hypothalamus. Finally, more recent studies have highlighted how love-based relationships among different species determine a mutual control of emotions and behaviors.
In conclusion, is possible to affirm that “pet therapy is a form of therapy in which the most used and solicited communication channel is that of the immediate expression of emotions” and despite still being subject to studies today, its potential applications and benefits are certainly known to be extremely powerful.