Therapist

Benefits of pet therapy for mental health

NOV.

23,

2016

By Allison White, ACSW, LCSW, CCDP-D

 

I remember when I was seven, my Great-Uncle Benji said to my parents, “Allison needs a dog.” It was at that time, my life changed. I was a very quiet, reserved kid, but dogs brought me out of my shell. They were with me during good times, painful times and major life events—and loved me no matter how I reacted to these situations. They remained stable forces in my life, even during the darkest turmoil.

Nowadays, I work with clients who live with depression, anxiety and addictions, and they don’t always feel like there is hope. It’s hard for them to see light in the midst of their darkness, and peace seems so far away. But when I use my dogs during pet therapy visits, I see how animals brighten up a person’s mood, even if it’s for a short time. That moment allows a small trickle of light into that person’s heart, which may not have been there before.

During one session in particular, a client asked if she could get on the floor because she wanted to talk to my therapy dog about something “very important.” She buried her head into my dog’s fur and talked about the horrible week she had endured. Stroking my dog’s fur, my client was overcome with a sense of calm in a way I could not have accomplished by merely talking with her. No judgments, no expectations—just a furry hug.

When we’re facing despair, loneliness, chronic health issues, depression, addictions, or anything beyond our ability to cope, a pet can help ease the pain. He or she can give us a reason to get out of our thoughts to focus on a sense of purpose. The relationship we have with our pets is real and symbiotic—what I give to my pets comes back to me in ways that can’t be measured.

Research shows the benefits of pet therapy (in fact, its first known use dates back to the 9th century!). Boris Levinson was the first clinician to truly introduce the value of animals in a therapeutic environment. In the 1960s, Levinson reported that having his dog present at talk therapy sessions led to increased communication, increased self-esteem and increased willingness to disclose difficult experiences. Ever since, people have been turning to pets for comfort and support during periods of emotional turmoil. Hugging and speaking with a pet who won’t judge you for your feelings or thoughts is cathartic and helps people get through rough times. Pets also reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression, giving people a reason to get up in the morning. Other benefits are unconditional love, acceptance, a “buddy” that encourages physical activity, which leads to healthier lifestyles.

If you’re unable to own a pet, there are many ways to reap the benefits of a pet relationship. Volunteering at a local shelter or helping rescue groups or pet therapy organizations such as Pet Partners (a national organization that promotes positive human-animal interactions) are ways to save pets’ lives, and possibly your own.

 

Allison is a licensed clinical social worker with 25 years of experience in the mental health field. She has worked at BJC Behavioral Health for 23 years and has been a clinical supervisor of a continuous treatment team for the past 21 years. Allison has been a volunteer for Support Dog’s Inc. for the past 9 years, has had two certified TOUCH therapy dogs, one of which was also certified in animal-assisted crisis response.

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. 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 provider

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

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.

Outlook

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.

Animal therapy or pet therapy refers to the use of animals as a way to help people cope with and recover from some physical and mental health conditions.

Depending on the function of the therapy, people may choose from various animals, including dogs, horses, and birds. Animal assisted therapy is not the only therapeutic option in most cases, but it can be a good choice for some people.

Keep reading to learn more, including how it works, who it may benefit, and more.

What is it?

A man in a wheelchair interacts with a horse during an animal therapy session.

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Interacting with professionally trained dogs, horses, and birds may help people with physical or mental health conditions.

Animal therapy, also called pet therapy or animal assisted therapy, refers to various services using animals to help people with specific physical or mental health conditions.

Animals may be able to provide comfort, alert others if someone is in danger, or even perform direct actions to help a person’s condition when they are in need. It is a type of complementary or alternative therapy. It should enhance but not replace other treatments.

On the whole, the goal of animal assisted therapy is to alleviate or help people cope with some symptoms of various conditions where possible.

The exact type of animal therapy can vary greatly depending on what condition the person has, the type of animal, and what kind of therapy they provide.

Animal therapy builds on a concept called the human-animal bond, which describes people’s desire to interact with and relate to animals. For many people, by interacting with a friendly animal, they can form a bond with them. This bond can produce a calming state in the person.

This bond itself may help the person in several ways, such as:

  • reducing boredom
  • increasing movement and activity through walks and play
  • providing companionship and decreasing loneliness
  • increasing social interactions
  • improving mood and general well-being

The positive interactions with an animal may lead to benefits in the mind and body, such as reduced stress and an overall more balanced mental and emotional state.

Animal therapy partially uses this bond in a directed way to achieve the goals of the therapy.

How does it work?

Animal therapy can have several goals, and these will determine how it works. The type of therapy and target for this therapy may change depending on the condition and the type of aid that a person needs. Some examples include:

  • providing comfort and reducing levels of pain
  • improving movement or motor skills
  • developing social or behavioral skills
  • increasing motivation toward activities such as exercise or interacting with others

The process of animal therapy itself typically involves the animal’s handler, who is often the owner, bringing the animal to each session. The handler will work under a doctor’s guidance to help the person achieve the goals of their therapy.

A number of organizations train handlers and connect them to healthcare providers. Many handlers work as volunteers. Before getting approval for therapy use, both the animal and the handler will have to go through various certifications with these groups and organizations.

The handler must generally pass an instructional course on how to interact with people and perform the types of therapies that they may provide.

The animal also has to go through certain checks. These will include checking immunization records and performing physical exams to ensure that the animal is generally healthy and free of disease. They will also have to undergo temperament testing to make sure that they behave properly with both the handler and other people.

Additionally, the pair will go through obedience training. This rigorous testing and certification ensures the safety and professionalism of everyone involved and helps give the person access to the best therapy sessions possible.

It is important to note that a therapy dog is not the same as a service dog and does not have all of the same rights. For example, a therapy dog cannot accompany a handler into a business establishment.

Who might benefit?

Animal therapy may help people with a range of health issues.

Mental health

The Pet Partners organization note that these therapies may improve many important markers of stress and disorder by:

  • decreasing anxiety and stress
  • decreasing perceptions of pain
  • reducing feelings of fear or worry
  • increasing feelings of social support
  • providing motivation, stimulation, and focus

A review study notes that animal therapy appears to provide general benefits for both physical and psychological health. Evidence for animal assisted therapy appears strongest for markers of anxiety and depression in the widest range of people.

The researchers note that the therapy may be beneficial for people from many different age groups with various conditions. For example, a 2019 study found that the use of therapy dogs improved the efficacy of mental health treatments among adolescents.

Together, these factors may make the therapy helpful for aspects of conditions such as:

  • dementia
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • autism spectrum disorder
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • schizophrenia

Studies involving the use of therapy horses and dogs have shown that animal therapy might also help alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some people going through rehabilitation for a drug use disorder may also respond well and have a greater sense of well-being when working with an animal.

Physical health

Some forms of animal therapy may also help with markers of physical conditions, including:

  • epilepsy
  • heart failure
  • pain from cancer treatment
  • postoperative recovery
  • recovery after a major stroke or another condition that causes a person to lose motor skills

Working with an animal in these cases may motivate the person to continue therapy, boost their mood, and reduce signs of pain. For physical conditions, it may help them move correctly and exercise often.

Additionally, some long-term care facilities may offer pet therapy programs to help improve the mood and general well-being of people in these facilities.

A study in Psychogeriatrics found that dog assisted therapy in long-term elderly care facilities helped reduce symptoms of depression. The research suggests that the dogs help facilitate social interaction and create positive emotional responses.

However, more research is necessary to confirm the benefits of animal therapy.

Risks

While animal therapy may be helpful for people with certain health issues, it may not be right for everyone.

Some people may be allergic to the animals that commonly play a role in therapy. Many people are allergic to the dander from a dog’s shedding, for example. For these individuals, animal therapy with a dog could cause far more harm than good.

Others may simply be uncomfortable with or afraid of the animals. They may not choose this type of therapy as it would cause them more stress.

In some cases, a person may become very attached to the animal rather quickly. This feeling could lead to possessiveness or actually decrease a person’s satisfaction with therapy.

Additionally, therapy animals that visit hospitals and other long-term facilities may be carriers of certain infections or diseases. There may be a chance of them spreading these infections to other people, making thorough testing important for any animal.

Alternatives

Animal therapy is a complementary treatment. It is not a basis for the treatment of any condition and should only enhance or complement other treatment. It is not a replacement for other forms of therapy, such as psychotherapy or physical therapy.

This form of therapy might not suit everyone, however. People who do not respond well to animal therapy or are not interested in trying it may ask about other options. These alternatives will vary depending on the person’s condition.

Learn more about several types of therapy options here.

Summary

Animal therapy involves regular sessions with professionally trained animals and their handlers. It aims to help people cope with both physical and mental health disorders.

Doctors or mental health specialists may recommend and administer animal therapy for various conditions, with different goals in mind for each person.

Some people may not enjoy animal therapy or have other reasons to avoid it, and they can choose from alternative therapies.

Anyone considering animal therapy should discuss the process and how they may benefit from it with a doctor or mental health specialist.

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