While conventional wisdom has long supported animal companions as promoting human wellbeing, only recently has science investigated the therapeutic effect pets have in alleviating mental and medical difficulties. [1, 3] But, what are the advantages of pet therapy in eating disorder treatment?
The most widely researched animals appear to be dogs, horses, cats, and aquatic (e.g., dolphins). A study or two has even looked at the benefits of birds and rabbits on human health and well-being. Of the animals researched, dogs appear to have the greatest impact on humans. 
Formally referred to as “animal-assisted therapy,” pet therapy is thought to offer the following benefits: [1, 2, 3]
- Decrease stress
- Decrease difficult or unwanted emotions like anger, anxiety, and depression
- Increase self-esteem
- Increase social interactions, decrease loneliness
- Lower blood pressure and heart rate levels, lower blood pressure increases following stress-inducing tasks and quicker post-stressful-task recovery times
- Build feelings of empowerment
- Increase positive social interaction skills
- Boost therapy attendance
- Allows for new opportunities to regulate effect
- Allows for attachment healing
- Helps tolerate distress (e.g., increased mindfulness, distraction from distressing thoughts or emotions, self-soothing by petting animal)
- Increase self-awareness
While the effect of pets on eating disorder (ED) treatment has not been studied widely, one can see where these benefits would translate well to ED treatment and recovery.
In one study, women in ED treatment found horses and dogs supportive of their recovery, particularly when it came to emotional and relational comfort, identity reformation, experience of the ED, and thought management. 
In this same study, the women reported feeling comforted by the animals, as they increased feelings of protection and safety. They also reported that they felt the animals had an ability to recognize their needs, provide unconditional and non-judgmental support, and offer (perceived) protection. 
Because animals offer many benefits to one’s treatment and recovery, many providers and facilities are incorporating animals into their therapies. Whether it’s the more formalized animal-assisted therapy or having companion animals present, the benefits of pet therapy in eating disorder recovery are likely vast.
Nimer, J., & Lundahl, B.W. (2007). Animal-Assisted Therapy: A Meta-Analysis, Anthrozoös, 20:3, 225-238, DOI: 10.2752/089279307X224773
Wisdom, J. P., Saedi, G. A., & Green, C. A. (2009). Another breed of “service” animals: STARS study findings about pet ownership and recovery from serious mental illness. The American journal of orthopsychiatry, 79(3), 430–436. doi:10.1037/a0016812
Fischette, P. F. (2010). Snapshot Two: AAI and Eating Disorders. In Fine, A. H. Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines, 3rd ed.
About Our Sponsor:
Fairhaven Treatment Center is a leading eating disorder treatment center that provides treatment for adult women and adolescent girls struggling with Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED).
Fairhaven specializes in working with eating disorders with co-occurring post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma and attachment disorder, and a history of addiction and substance use disorder.
About the Author:
Chelsea Fielder-Jenks is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Chelsea works with individuals, families, and groups primarily from a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) framework.
She has extensive experience working with adolescents, families, and adults who struggle with eating, substance use, and various co-occurring mental health disorders. You can learn more about Chelsea and her private practice at ThriveCounselingAustin.com.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on November 12, 2019, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on November 12, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC