Who does not like to play with their adorable pup, make their cat purr, or watch their bunny’s nose twitch in delight? These may be things we do not generally brag about since they seem a bit silly and childlike. The truth is though, that you would be hard pressed to find someone who does not enjoy the companionship and sheer fluffiness of an adorable animal. The fact that all that cuddling and love makes us feel good and connected, is, for the record, not a coincidence either. In fact, all that snuggling, nuzzling, and adoration is about more than you and your animal. It is in fact an example of how beneficial and therapeutic animals can be in our day to day lives.
What is Pet Therapy?
The therapeutic use of animals in guided and structured interactions with people, is the essence of pet therapy. This type of treatment is often used to help reorient patients with dementia or confusion, back to time, place, and person. It is also used to treat anxiety, often in conjunction with other types of therapy, by encouraging bonding, nurturing, self- care and care for others. Not so surprisingly, pet therapy has also been used in the treatment of alcoholism and addiction for the very same reasons.
Determining Which Animals to Use
Generally speaking, domesticated animals such as cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and dogs are used in pet therapy. Research has shown however that the type of animal used, whether a slimy frog or fuzzy mouse, is not nearly as important as the ability to care for and show affection towards an animal. This research demonstrates further that the efficacy of pet therapy is not tied up in fur and fluff but rather, the natural attachment and connection humans share with animals.
In addition to animal preference as well as the availability of certain types of animals, it is one’s therapeutic goals and the challenges being faced, that determine the type of animal to be used within the therapeutic process. Interestingly, not being an animal lover or “pet person” does not seem to adversely affect the benefits of this type of therapy.
Pets as Therapeutic Tools
Being entrusted with a pet can produce many useful and invaluable health benefits.
Physical Health Benefits
The physical benefits of pet therapy are part of a cascading set of behaviors that lead to concrete, substantive change. As you interact with your designated animal, endorphins are released. The production of these endorphins then lead to increased calm and decreased physical pain, while allowing you to relax and be “in the moment.” As this process unfolds, you are likely to notice a drop in blood pressure. If that continues to occur over time, so too does the very real possibility of needing less medication to control things like hypertension, pain, and cortisol levels.
Mental Health Benefits
Pet therapy is a wonderful contribution to mental health as well. In addition to increasing empathy and reducing anxiety, pet therapy encourages feelings of happiness, companionship, and acuity. For patients with autism or Down’s syndrome for example, it can also improve one’s understanding of how to behave appropriately in both private and public settings.
Perhaps one of the best advantages of pet therapy is the animals’ complete lack of judgement. Frankly speaking, the people to whom you divulge your fears and weaknesses can use them against you or negate your experiences altogether. Because animals are unable to talk, they can only take in what you say and love you still. That gives clients the permission to unleash painful and embarrassing thoughts without fear of judgement or ridicule.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Pet Therapy
While the benefits of pet therapy far exceed its limitations, there are things to take into consideration before participating in a pet therapy program. For example, clients who are allergic to animals or have a deep seated fear of them, are not good candidates for pet therapy. Additionally, individuals who live in facilities that do not allow animals in, are at an obvious therapeutic disadvantage. Furthermore, those who are immunocompromised may not be able to interact with certain animals. Lastly, it is important to keep in mind that even the best trained animals do not always display stellar conduct. Therefore, patients with histories of aggression or violent outbursts should be carefully screened before being allowed to interact with pets.
Being playful with animals gives clients the ability to demonstrate the give and take needed to promote socialization. In fact, animal therapy is so beneficial in this regard that it has been shown to significantly improve the lives of convicts, individuals who have in the past shown little care or regard for others’ welfare. In essence, the animals, with their unassuming needs for love and care, are able to contribute to the rehabilitation of some of the most dangerous criminals in the system. There are few interventions that are as safe, effective, and accessible.
If you are interested in pet therapy or other forms of therapeutic support, contact Dr. Shahen Kurestian, DC of Body Systems Wellness in Glendale, California.