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Furry Friends With Benefits: The Rise of Pet Therapy

It’s hard not to smile when your dog greets you at the door exuberantly wagging its tail or when your cat weaves in and out of your legs trying to get your undivided attention the minute you step into your home. With almost no effort, pets somehow manage to bring so much joy into our lives. They can make us laugh or comfort us when we are ill or feeling sad. Of course, having a pet is not suitable or convenient for everyone, but most pet owners can attest to the range of benefits having a furry four-legged housemate brings into their lives. There’s also growing evidence to prove that pets not only offer companionship and comfort but can also provide us with a range of mental health and physical benefits.

In fact, pet therapy, which is also referred to as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), is increasingly becoming a common therapeutic intervention that involves animals into a treatment plan in order to help someone recover from or cope with a health problem or psychological issue. Animals such as dogs, horses and cats are most commonly used. However, fish, guinea pigs, birds and other animals that meet the screening criteria, are even being used for therapy. Pet therapy is basically a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal, which also involves the animal’s handler.

Pet therapy builds on the pre-existing human-animal bond, which has roots in the biophilia hypothesis (BET) suggesting that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Developed by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, the biophilia hypothesis states that early in human history there was an evolutionary advantage in knowing about the natural world, particularly information concerning plants and animals, and that this knowledge contributed to survival. Therefore, the human brain has been shaped by evolution to pay selective attention to animals.

Whether bonding with animals is innate in humans or not, we do know that interacting with a friendly pet can help many physical and mental issues. For example, it can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It can also release endorphins (yes, those chemicals that make you naturally and ecstatically happy) 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 one’s progress should be regularly recorded and tracked in 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
  • 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
  • People with dementia
  • People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • People with autism spectrum disorder
  • Children who struggle with reading (some research suggests reading aloud to a trained dog and handler shows fewer anxiety symptoms).While it is difficult to measure the degree to which the animal itself contributes to the recovery process, there is growing awareness that pet therapy may play an important role in treating the above-mentioned conditions.
Photo credit: http://learningexpressblog.typepad.com/.a/6a011571ec93fe970b0168eb5eebf7970c-pi

Are there risks involved in pet therapy?

Some of the biggest risks of pet therapy involve safety and sanitation. People who are allergic to animal dander (the material shed from the body of various animals that have fur or feathers) may have reactions during pet therapy. It’s important to note that anyone who dislikes or fears animals (or is allergic to them) is not a likely candidate for this particular intervention. Animals in pet therapy programs are typically screened for behaviour 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, depression and possible relapse that can occur after therapy discontinues. Another limitation of pet therapy is that it might be effective in the short term but not in the long term for the patient.

Photo credit: hhttp://www.laceyanimalhospital.com/pet-assisted-therapy/

How is pet therapy administered?

Normally your doctor or therapist managing your treatment will be the one to 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 behaviour with the handler
  • A certification from the sponsoring organization

Much more than simply spending time with an animal, animal-assisted therapy involves specific therapeutic goals, strategies and outcomes. Therapeutic experiences can include walking, brushing, petting and caring for an animal, as well as processing the experience of trying to achieve a given task. Horses are great candidates for pet therapy as they are renowned for their sensitivity and are naturally gifted at ‘reading’ human emotions. With equine (horse) therapy the treatment can take many forms. For those who prefer staying on the ground, equine-assisted therapy includes activities such as grooming, petting, and feeding. Otherwise, programs may feature jumping over small obstacles and trotting with the horse or riding in a horse-driven carriage.

In Lebanon, we discovered equine therapy being practiced by psychotherapist Hayat Fakhouri, who runs Felt Connection, an equine therapy and counselling service. At a stable in Beit Mery, she manages three horses that she has trained in natural horsemanship and in ensuring that they are safe to be around people.  Fakhouri, who holds a UK certification in equine-facilitated human development through IFEAL (International Foundation of Equine Assisted Learning), has also developed an affinity to these animals from an early age having been around horses all her life.  She told The Wellness Project that clients come to her facility mainly seeking self-reflection and development, mindfulness, and to increase their self-awareness. Other clients come seeking help for more specific issues, such as trauma, depression and anxiety. Sessions last for 90 minutes where patients do boundary work (this means working towards setting good boundaries with other people), learn to express what they are experiencing in the moment and learn to respond to a situation as opposed to react.  To get in touch and to know more you can go to the Facebook page: @feltconnection.

Birds, especially parrots, also make great candidates for emotional support animals. Parrots have been known to show high levels of empathy, and they can also be taught several phrases and words that can keep patients occupied. Caring for injured or abused birds can also help ease symptoms, especially among veterans suffering from PTSD.

                                                                              Photo credit: https://www.countynewscenter.com/parrots-provide-edgemoor-patients-comfort-and-joy/

Expectations and setting goals

Animals are accepting, non-threatening and non-judgmental, making it easier for people to open up. They can also provide a sense of calm, comfort, or safety and divert attention away from a stressful situation and toward one that provides pleasure. Advocates of animal-assisted therapy say that developing a bond with an animal can help people develop a better sense of self-worth and trust, stabilize their emotions, and improve their communication, self-regulation, and socialization skills. The success of pet therapy depends on establishing realistic goals and expectations and meeting those goals. Normally 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.

What to look for in an animal-assisted therapist

In countries where animal-assisted therapy is more commonplace and integrated into treatment plans, it often serves in conjunction with traditional work done by a licensed psychotherapist, social worker, or other mental health care providers. Dogs are the primary animals used, although various animal-assisted programs offer different animals for people with different physical and emotional needs. Service dogs may come from animal shelters or be raised in selective breeding programs, but they must undergo formal training to be certified. In some cases, it may be necessary to obtain a written prescription or a letter from a medical doctor, licensed psychotherapist, or social worker to certify or register your own therapy or emotional-support animal. Most therapy dogs can be found wearing special clothing that lets people know that the dog is safe to pet and interact with.

Awesome creatures whether as companions or for therapy!

Anyone who has owned any type of animal will know how much compassion and benefits animals provide. Measuring the benefits of animal therapy is not an exact science so we still do not know how truly effective it is – as there is still a lack of long-term and accurate studies that have been carried out. Still, more research is needed before scientists know exactly how it works, but the published studies so far show that animals definitely have a place in physical and mental well-being. To sum it up, whether certified or trained for therapy sessions or simply owning a pet, the benefits of an animal in any capacity is undeniable!


Cover image credit: https://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-animal-assisted-therapy.htm









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