Does volunteering with your pet really make a difference?
Patients, their family members, and staff who experience pet visits will emphatically tell you that pet visits are very much appreciated. Scientists are also learning that both the physical and emotional health of patients can improve with pet visits. Researchers at the University of California recently published their findings from a study of 76 patients with severe heart disease who received a 12-minute visit from a volunteer with a therapy dog, a 12-minute visit from a volunteer alone, or no volunteer visit in the journal American Journal of Critical Care. High blood pressure measured in the blood vessels taking blood from the heart to the lungs was significantly decreased when patients had received a pet visit compared to either a human only visit or no visit. Patient anxiety was also most reduced when patients were visited by the dog. So getting a brief visit from a dog reduced heart stress and emotional stress in the patient being visited.
Is it true that volunteering can also improve the health of the volunteer?
A lot of medical research has investigated the health benefits for the volunteer from giving time to others. Studies consistently show a number of improvements:
- Improved physical health
- Improved mental health and mood
- Improved sense of well-being
- Improved longevity
So not only can volunteering make you feel good about yourself and improve your mood, but your physical health may also improve and you may live longer.
Drs. Harris and Thoresen at Stanford University published their findings of a link between volunteering and mortality in the Journal of Health Psychology. They monitored a sample of over 7500 seniors in the United States for 8 years. Compared to people who “never volunteered,” people who “volunteered rarely” had a 41 percent decrease in mortality risk. People reporting they “sometimes volunteered” reduced their risk of death by 42 percent, while those “volunteering frequently” reduced their risk by 53 percent.
Will my health benefits increase if I volunteer more?
Dr. Francesca Borgonovi, a researcher at the London School of Economics, analyzed data from a telephone survey about health and social factors, including volunteering, conducted in 29 of the United States. These results were recently published in the medical journal, Social Science & Medicine. Her research showed that the more frequently people volunteered, the more likely they were to be happy and healthy. In comparison to people who never volunteered, the likelihood of having excellent health increased by 4.5 percent in those people volunteering less than once a month, 12 percent if volunteering monthly, and 16 percent if volunteering weekly. The likelihood of being very happy increased by 7 percent when volunteering less than once a month and [an additional?] 6 percent if volunteering monthly or weekly. She found that the happiness benefits from volunteering monthly were the same as benefits in people who had an annual salary increase from $20,000 to $30,000. Those volunteering weekly had the same improvement in happiness as those with a salary increase from $20,000 to $75,000 or $100,000. So give yourself a happiness raise by starting regular volunteer work!
How much is enough? How much is too much?
Researchers at the Centre for Mental Health Research at the Australian National University recent published results of their study evaluating the benefits of volunteering in over 2000 seniors in the journal Gerontology. They found that improvements in mood and life satisfaction increased as the amount of time spent volunteering increased, to a maximum improvement at 100 hours annually or about 2 hours per week. Improvements were maintained until people began volunteering 800 hours annually (15 hours per week) or more. Once people began volunteering 15 hours per week or more, improvements decreased.
While there are lots of studies showing benefits to humans from pet therapy, researchers have not studied the effects on the therapy animals themselves. Generally, pets love spending extra time with their owners and socializing, but it’s important to remember that pet therapy can also be tiring work for your pet. Most people recommend limiting a pet therapy visit to no more than 30-60 minutes, with shorter times appropriate for younger animals. Also, be sure to include drink and potty breaks for your pet during your visits.
How do I get started? I’m not really outgoing and don’t know what I’d talk about if I visited strangers or sick people.
Volunteering with your pet can be a great way to get started and begin to enjoy the health benefits from volunteering. According to statistics from the Humane Society of the United States, one in every three households had a dog and one in every three households has a cat. So if you’re not sure how to get started volunteering, consider taking your pet! Trained pets can visit shut-ins, nursing home residents, and hospital patients. Some groups also offer reading programs for elementary children that include the listening ears of your pet as a tool to encourage the hesitant reader that reading will be fun. My wheaten terrier and I visit residents of a nursing home and hospital patients. Everyone knows Wheatie’s name and can’t wait to give him a pat or a hug. Most patients spend their time with Wheatie snuggling him, asking him if he knows he’s a good boy, and telling him about their pet at home. When people ask me what I talk about with the patients, I usually tell them, “Most patients don’t really want to chat with me. They may ask questions about Wheatie but really just want to spend time with him.” So if you’re shy or uncomfortable chatting with strangers, pet therapy can be a great initial volunteer experience. All you need is a smile and a few words like, “So would you like a visit from a dog?” and your canine buddy will take care of the rest. Just be prepared to have everyone stop you and praise you for your fabulous pet. You’ll brighten the day for lots of people and find that you can’t help but have a big smile at the end of your day, too. If you’re interested in volunteering with your pet, contact your local healthcare facilities or humane society to identify the opportunities in your area and what training you and your pet will need to get started.