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 [i] — 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 defined as a guided interaction between a specially trained animal and an individual or group, facilitated by the animal’s handler [ii]. Also known as animal-assisted therapy, pet therapy interactions are used to help improve patients’ mental, social, emotional, and physical functions. Therapy can take place in a wide range of settings including hospitals, care homes, and treatment centers and can involve different activities such as walking, looking after, and grooming the therapy animal. Just like any other form of treatment, the specific components of the pet-therapy program are decided on a case-by-case basis so they address the particular needs of each patient.
What are the benefits of pet therapy?
Trained animals [iii] are used to benefit patients suffering with emotional and behavioral disorders, depression, autism, substance abuse, and dementia. 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.
Individuals with emotionally based disorders in particular may find it difficult to open up and trust another human being, but discover this process is much easier with a therapy animal. Frequently reported benefits from pet-therapy programs include a reduction in stress, a boost in self-esteem, improved mood, and better communication skills [iv].
Let’s look in a bit more detail at three health and wellness areas where therapy pets can make a real difference — mental health, dementia, and substance abuse.
Pet therapy and mental health
A wide range of mental health conditions are now treated through pet-therapy programs [v]. Interactions with animals are considered to offer benefits to patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, autism [vi], and challenging psychiatric disorders. Vulnerable prison inmates have also benefitted from animal-therapy programs, including a group of troubled female prisoners in Northern Ireland. Staff members in the prison have reported improved prisoner behavior and emotional wellbeing among the participants in the recent pilot project [vii].
Animal therapy is also used extensively to treat depression. Petting an animal is believed to cause the release of endorphins (feel-good neurotransmitters) which can have an extremely positive impact in patients dealing with depressive disorders. More detailed and developed interventions are often based on the premise that by focusing on the animal and its needs, the patient’s attention is drawn away from their own problems. Patients also have an opportunity to develop their nurturing skills and are encouraged to develop a sense of empathy with the animal.
Pet therapy and dementia
Dogs and other animals have taken part in visiting programs to assisted living centers for elderly people for many years. Although this type of interaction can certainly lift the spirits of those living in such centers, Alzheimer’s experts felt more could be gained through structured animal-assisted intervention programs.
A recent pilot program in Germany involved six months of structured dog visits to 17 nursing home residents with mild to severe dementia. The results showed this type of activity may improve social behaviors in elderly patients with dementia. Participants who took part in the animal-assisted therapy sessions demonstrated improved verbal communication function and greater attentiveness. Patients who took part in similar group activities without therapy dogs enjoyed less positive results [viii].
A research team from the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing also reported that dementia patients they worked with exhibited fewer symptoms of “sundown syndrome” as a result of an animal-therapy program [ix]. Sundown syndrome is a distressing condition associated with dementia which happens in the early evening period and involves behaviors such as restlessness, confusion, wandering, hitting and kicking. Having therapy dogs present during the early evening period appeared to distract the patients and also seemed to relax them.
Pet therapy and substance abuse
Therapy animals have also been successfully used within treatment programs for individuals with substance abuse issues. The presence of an animal can in itself help calm the patient down and prepare them to face their demons.
Addicts often focus almost exclusively on themselves. Engaging with an animal can encourage them to think about the needs of others. Delivered in a group setting, addicts are also more likely to interact socially with others if an animal is involved. Doctors observing how the addict deals with the animal also get a greater insight into the patient’s self-esteem issues, helping them identify specific coping mechanisms and healthier new behaviors [x].
Often integrated into counseling programs, animal therapy can help addicts learn more about teamwork, communication, trust, and self-expression. Animals can also introduce some fun into sessions which can help defuse tension during challenging discussions [xi].
i. “Pets as therapy — The therapeutic benefits of animal interaction for adults and children,” Petsastherapy.org
iii. “Therapy dogs undergo rigorous classes, testing to do their jobs,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 2014
vi. “Autism: How new therapies are beating the condition,” The Telegraph, October 2014
viii. “Animal-Assisted Intervention Helps Patients with Dementia,” Annals of Long-Term Care, August 2014