Animal lovers already know how good it feels to interact with their pet. Now research has shown that this positive effect can also be applied in a therapeutic setting. Leveraging the power of pets is becoming a vital tool in the treatment of a variety of medical conditions and disorders — particularly those associated with mental health. Here we explore the different types of pet therapy making their mark and how it can be used to successfully treat a wide range of conditions.
What is pet therapy?
Pet therapy is a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal. It also involves the animal’s handler. The purpose of pet therapy is to help someone recover from or cope with a health problem or mental disorder.
Dogs and cats are most commonly used in pet therapy. However, fish, guinea pigs, horses, and other animals that meet screening criteria can also be used. The type of animal chosen depends on the therapeutic goals of a person’s treatment plan.
Pet therapy is also referred to as animal-assisted therapy (AAT). AAT is sometimes confused with animal-assisted activities (AAA). AAT is a formal, structured set of sessions that helps people reach specific goals in their treatment. AAA involves more casual meetings in which an animal and its handler interact with one or more people for comfort or recreation.
What are the benefits of pet therapy?
Pet therapy builds on the pre-existing human-animal bond. Animals accept us as we are — they don’t judge and they don’t threaten — so patients can wholeheartedly interact with them safe in the knowledge that there is no hidden agenda. Interacting with a friendly pet can help many physical and mental issues. It can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It can also release endorphins that produce a calming effect. This can help alleviate pain, reduce stress, and improve your overall psychological state.
Pet therapy can be used in many different ways. Defined objectives are an important part of therapy, and your progress will be recorded and tracked at structured sessions.
The goals of a pet therapy program can include:
- improving motor skills and joint movement
- improving assisted or independent movement
- increasing self-esteem
- increasing verbal communication
- developing social skills
- increasing willingness to join in activities
- improving interactions with others
- motivating willingness to exercise
Other benefits of pet therapy include:
- making you happier, lessening depression, and improving your outlook on life
- decreasing loneliness and isolation by giving you a companion
- reducing boredom
- reducing anxiety because of its calming effects
- helping children learn empathic and nurturing skills
- improving the relationship between you and your healthcare provide
Who should consider pet therapy?
Pet therapy can be useful for:
- people undergoing chemotherapy
- residents in long-term care facilities
- people hospitalized with chronic heart failure
- veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder
- children having physical or dental procedures
- stroke victims and people undergoing physical therapy to regain motor skills
- people with mental health disorders
- people affected by substance abuse
During a medical procedure, people may have less anxiety if a pet is present. In rehabilitation, people may be more motivated to recover and practice their therapy when working with a pet. People who have sensory disabilities can sometimes communicate more easily with an animal. This encourages more interaction with healthcare providers and other people.
What are the risks of pet therapy?
Some of the biggest risks of pet therapy involve safety and sanitation. People who are allergic to animal dander may have reactions during pet therapy. Animals in pet therapy programs are typically screened for behavior and health. An animal’s owner and handler must also undergo training and an evaluation to help ensure a positive experience.
While uncommon, human injury can occur when unsuitable animals are used. Animals may also suffer injury or abuse when handled inappropriately. In some cases, people may become possessive of the animals helping them and be reluctant to give them up after a session. This can result in low self-esteem and depression.
How is pet therapy administered?
Your doctor or therapist managing your treatment will administer pet therapy. A trained handler, often the pet’s owner, will take the animal to every meeting and work under your doctor or therapist’s direction to help you reach your goals. In most cases, the handlers work as volunteers. Discussion of proper pet handling is needed to ensure the safety of both the person receiving treatment and the pet.
The first step in pet therapy is the selection of a suitable animal. Many groups and organizations train and connect volunteer owners and pets with healthcare providers. Before an animal and its handler can participate in pet therapy, the team has to fulfill certain requirements. This process typically includes:
- a physical examination of the animal to confirm that it’s immunized and free of diseases
- an obedience training course to ensure proper animal control
- an instructional course to teach the trainer about interaction with other people
- an evaluation of the animal’s temperament and behavior with the handler
- a certification from the sponsoring organization
Once a team of an animal and a handler is approved, animals are assigned for therapy based on a specific person’s needs. The animal’s type, breed, size, age, and natural behavior will determine where it will be most helpful.
The success of pet therapy depends on establishing realistic goals and expectations and meeting those goals. You and your doctor or therapist will establish these goals at the beginning of your treatment. You’ll also discuss how to reach those goals and how long it will take.
Your doctor or therapist will monitor your progress and help you stay on track to meet your goals. If your progress is slower or faster than expected, they may alter your treatment plan.
Pet therapy can help both children and adults with a variety of physical and mental issues. It can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and increase positivity and socialization. Talk to your doctor about more information on pet therapy and whether it’s suitable for you.