Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), also known as pet therapy, is a growing field wherein experts harness the healing prowess of animals to help people feel better. While dogs and cats are among the most obvious candidates for healers, other animals such as dolphins, horses, and guinea pigs are also tapped as well. These highly trained animals would interact with patients who may be recovering from diseases and conditions such as cancer or mental disorders. Here’s what you need to know about them.
Why it works
AAT works for a number of reasons. For instance, think of the way you feel when you see a cute dog or kitten. Oftentimes you feel happy and would want to pet this creature, right? That’s because there is an innate bond between humans and animals. Petting a loving animal can give you a number of health benefits, among them reducing blood pressure, enhancing cardiovascular health, and even alleviate pain. The feel-good emotion you feel when you pet an animal? That is your endorphins speaking. According to MedicineNet.com, secretion of endorphins can lead to “feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response.” The same source goes on to say that with high levels of endorphins, “we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress.”
In terms of mental benefits, interacting with animals has been shown to lessen depression, lower feelings of isolation, and provides patients with comfort. Not only that, but a friendly animal can also help you feel better by lessening boredom, reducing your anxiety, and reduces loneliness.
How so? Think of it this way: when you have pets, you are responsible for their entire wellbeing. You have to feed them, make sure they have enough exercise, and ensure that they have everything they need to be healthy. Without you, your pets will not survive. This therefore can give you the motivation you need to get up in the morning no matter how depressed you may be — you have to get up and feed your pet, and be there for it.
In terms of reducing loneliness, pets, especially dogs, are known to show you how much they care about you. For instance, think of the way a dog bounds up to its owner when the said owner gets home from work. Despite being left alone for the entire day, the dog still joyously greets its owner. This therefore gives the owner a sense that someone is at least happy to see them, regardless of how difficult work may be.
In a nutshell, working with an animal can bring in these benefits:
- Improved mobility and movement
- Improved communication and motor skills
- Improved moods
- Reduced stress and anxiety levels
- More motivated to recover
Understanding the risks
Understandably, not all people are okay with the idea of interacting with unknown animals. After all, you don’t know if someone else’s dog will bite you. However, it is worth pointing out that handlers and the pets themselves go through a rigorous training and evaluation process before they are approved to become therapy animals. The animals are well-behaved and know how to interact with patients.
Here is what every trainer and animal must go through before they can participate in pet therapy:
- The animal must be immunized and free of diseases
- The animal must have passed an obedience training course
- The trainer must pass an instructional course on how to properly interact with other people, particularly patients who may have special needs
- The animal’s temperament and behavior must be easily handled by its handler
- The pair must have a certification from a sponsoring organization
In terms of sanitation and safety, facilities such as hospitals usually have stringent rules that calls for animals to be vaccinated, clean, well-trained, and well-behaved. Patients who may be allergic to pet dander should also consider their allergies when pairing with a pet.
Another downside to pet therapy is that the patient may connect with the animals and may be reluctant to give them up. This can happen in some cases of children and those who may have dependency issues. In these cases, prying the pet away from the patients may result to depression and even lower self-esteem. What’s more, both the animals and the patients may be injured when the pairing is unsatisfactory.
Candidates for pet therapy
Not all cases can benefit from pet therapy. However, it is commonly used for residents in long-term care facilities, patients with mental health disorders, patients who are undergoing physical therapy or chemotherapy, and even those who have post-traumatic stress disorder.
These patients may feel more relaxed and comforted if an animal is present during their treatment or procedure. During rehabilitation, they may also feel more likely to respond to the treatment and more motivated to recover when they are working with an animal. In other cases, the patients may feel better communicating with animals rather than their health professionals, or they may feel more likely to open up once they are comforted by the presence of the pets.
How it works
Once your doctor determines that you may feel better with the help of animal-assisted therapy, you will then be connected with an animal who will work with you during treatment and your doctor’s visits. These animals are screened by many groups and organizations to ensure that they will not be jeopardizing your health. Once the animal is properly screened and approved, you would then be assigned your own animal.
The pets assigned to each patient are dependent on your needs. Its size, type, breed, age, and temperament are also chosen in consideration with your needs. Once you have agreed with the chosen animal, its handler will take it to your every meeting. Oftentimes the animals are brought along to help with your recovery, particularly under your doctor’s direction to meet your recovery milestones.
Working with an animal is beneficial for your health in numerous ways. It can help you recover and help you gain back your sense of self. In the long run, it can also help you become more prepared to have your own pet in the future.