Top five animals that double as doctors

Good News

Sure, they're adorable and fuzzy, but research has long documented the numerous health benefits pets can provide their owners. Studies among seniors show having a cat or dog can reduce blood pressure and lower stress levels while providing much-needed companionship.

Now, with the growing popularity of dolphin therapy, we take a look at five animals that pull day shifts as medical assistants.

Dolphins: Although dolphin assisted therapy (DAT) has garnered its share of criticism from those who claim its medical results have been exaggerated, a constant stream of new research shows exposure to dolphins has a number of health benefits. Organizations such as the Dolphin Reef in Eilat, Israel — an open, natural environment on the Red Sea — provide dolphins with more humane living conditions and do not force the animals to interact with humans unless they choose to.

Dogs: In addition to being man's best friend, dogs have become indispensable companions to people with disabilities. Guide dogs are trained to assist the blind and deaf by gently leading them around their environment, giving them the freedom to move around. Golden Retrievers, Labradors and German Shepherds often make the most effective guide dogs.

Horses: Because of their imposing size, horses can help people overcome fear, anxiety and develop confidence. Organizations such as Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association encourage individuals with behavioural issues to develop a work ethic, responsibility, communication skills and assertiveness through interacting with and caring for these majestic animals.

Cats: There's nothing like a deep-bellied purr from an adorable kitten to put the day's troubles to rest. Persian cats, with their long fur and gentle nature, are often brought into nursing homes to provide unconditional love and alleviate loneliness. Plus, stroking a cat's fur has occasionally been known to stimulate memory in the elderly.

Lizards: Perhaps the least likely healer in the group, these scaly reptiles have been used to encourage the bonding process in younger children and teach them the responsibility of caring for a pet. For that reason, lizards, and other small animals such as guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits, are commonly recommended to assist with communication issues in autistic children and elderly people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's.

(Photo credit: Wally Santana/ AP via The Canadian Press)