You may have heard this term before but weren’t sure what it meant. Pet therapy is a relatively new type of program that uses various types of animals to assist human beings with rehabilitation, mental disorders and comfort. Keep reading to find out more about pet therapy.
Pet therapy is also referred to as “assisted animal therapy.” It is the notion that animals have healing properties just by their very existence and proximity to humans. It is not magic, but a bond between lifeforms that has many benefits.
Therapy Animals versus Service Animals
Using animals for therapeutic reasons should not be confused with having a service animal. Service animals are trained by professionals to be of assistance to those with physical or mental disabilities. The animals perform certain tasks for them or act as alarms when dangerous conditions arise. They are the property of a single owner at a time and only the owner touches the animal.
On the other hand, therapy animals are usually pets to private owners who volunteer or contract out their services to facilities that could use their help. These animals don’t perform tasks but provide comfort, relief, contentment and social interaction for a variety of patients with specific needs. Therapy animals work with individuals or groups. In order to be effective, measurable goals and a plan are constructed by the therapist along with the animal and its owner.
What Types of Pets Are Used as Therapy Animals?
The most common therapy pets are dogs and cats. Equine therapy (use of horses) is also enjoying a healthy presence in this new field. These are not the only ones, however. The main requirement is that the pet be gentle when handled by one or several people. Other pets used include birds, guinea pigs, goldfish, even chickens and reptiles. As long as the patient is not afraid or the pet and receptive to it, that animal could become a therapy pet.
Benefits of Pet Therapy
Whatever the pet type, use of an animal in the therapy process has some interesting benefits:
- Improved focus and balance (depending on the animal and the activity)
- Physical interaction and contact
- Lowered blood pressure
- Increased mental stimulation
- Empathy (pets often mirror the behaviors of their owners)
- Increased self-esteem
- Improved problem-solving skills
- Greater trust and teamwork in therapy
This is just an abbreviated list but you can see where we’re going with this.
Who Can They Help?
People from all walks of life can benefit from pet therapy. These pets are most commonly seen in nursing facilities where they serve as a constant for people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In hospitals, they aid cancer patients, heart patients, and those suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Individuals with autism spectrum disorders as well as developmental disorders may also benefit from the presence of such an animal.
If you know someone for whom traditional therapy alone is not working, consider adding a loving pet to the equation
Four Ways a Therapy Pet Can Help the Sick
You may not think that pets and hospitals go hand in hand, but they do. The very presence of an animal in the hospital often causes an uproar – but in a good way. Everyone wants to get in on the fun.
Have you ever been in hospital? It can be a scary place. And, it’s filled with sick people. The environment can also be lonely and isolated with only health professionals coming into your room. For some, hospitals conjure up visions of pain and death. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Pet therapy programs can be found in a number of healthcare facilities. They are designed to assist patients with recovery and treatment. We have heard about pets increasing good mood and decreasing blood pressure. They are sensitive to the moods of their owners and strive to soothe them whenever possible. Pets have been used in therapy for people with pain issues (such as arthritis), behavioral issues, mental health patients, veterans with PTSD, nursing home residents and more.
Just their companionship can provide health benefits such as:
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Lower blood pressure (previously mentioned)
- Increased alertness
- Increased balance
- Increased wellbeing and socialization
- Less stress
Who wouldn’t benefit from that kind of therapy? People worry about pets in hospitals but measures are carefully taken to ensure that the animals chosen to participate in these therapy programs are immunized, friendly, clean and well-behaved.
Four Ways to Help Sick People with Pets
1. Face challenges – Pets are a responsibility. Learning to care for them and see them every day can spark a renewed sense of purpose in those who are undergoing chemotherapy or other major procedure. Their bond with the pets gives them a reason to fight on and meet difficult medical challenges with hope and a positive outlook.
2. Shorter recovery time – Many hospital patients who receive pet therapy are reminded of their own pets left behind at home. The therapy pet is a willing surrogate and can also help their recipients to recover faster or need less care so that they can get back home to their beloved dog or cat. Many patients are secretly worried about who will care for their pets while they are away or if something happens to them.
3. Companionship – It can be lonely staying in the hospital. Therapy animals make the stay more interesting and less isolated. Patients who may not get a lot of visitors look forward to their daily dog walk or cuddle time.
4. Improved family interaction – Other family members benefit from animal visits as well. The presence of a dog affects everyone in the room. They can forget for a moment and enjoy a laugh and a cuddle with their loved one and their doggie friend.
Sickness doesn’t have to be a lonely experience when therapy pets are around.
How to Train Your Pet to Become a Therapy Pet
Therapy pets are instrumental in changing the lives of many people on a daily basis. Just the touch of an animal has been shown to increase those “feel good” endorphins in the body as well as promote energy and decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation. Maybe you are looking to become a volunteer at a hospital, school or nursing home. These organizations are amenable to animal visits. Here are some suggestions for you and your pet if therapy is what you are considering.
It bears noting that therapy pets and service animals are different. Service animals are trained to the specific needs of a person (deafness, blindness, other disorder). They are trained for that person and then become their personal companion. They maintain contact only with the service person to avoid confusion in their training.
Therapy animals are no less important as far as their duty to help others. While they don’t perform specific tasks as service animals do, they are available to their therapy patients as a tool to bring about a change. For example, petting a dog can provide physical and mental stimulation to nursing home residents. The presence of an animal can slow the heart rate and also reduce anxiety to children about to undergo dental procedures and other medical procedures. Animals, especially dogs, are empathetic, calm, patient and love to please people.
Training for Your Therapy Pet
We are going to specifically speak about dogs here. They are the most commonly used therapy pet. Several breeds are suitable to therapy because of their temperament, size and lifestyle. For instance, larger dogs may be more suitable to patients who need to move and for children. Dogs that require frequent daily walks outside are for more active assignments. Smaller dogs can visit with people who have limited mobility or are confined to a certain location like nursing facilities.
Here are some things to consider when training your dog to become a therapy pet.
- Training program – Begin with obedience school. Your dog will need to adapt to a variety of situations by listening and following your commands so they and the patient are kept safe. You can send your dog to obedience school with a certified dog instructor who will ensure your dog will pass any test set by the organization you partner with.
- Find an organization – You can go to visit your local nursing facility by yourself, but many places deal with established groups. And, partnering with an organization gives you and your pet more opportunities to help patients. Each organization will have their own requirements, so check to see what is needed.
- Join a national group – As a dog owner, joining the AKC (the American Kennel Club) means a national affiliation that lends confidence to anyone who uses you and your pet. Again, there will be an exam or criteria to follow.
If you have a wonderful pet that you’d like to share with others, training for service in pet therapy is a great way to give back.
How Therapy Pets Can Help Those with Mental Health Issues
Therapy pets provide a number of health benefit to the people who utilize their services. They support physical and mental health not by performing tasks, as service animals do, but by being there and catering to the emotional needs of the patient. Those who suffer from mental health issues can also be aided by the presence of a therapy animal.
Therapy pets have private owners who are a certified team together. These owners use the love of their pet to help another to heal or to cope with life. Many therapy pets are dogs but they can also be cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, horses, lizards and fish and others. They are trained to be gentle, patient, social and hospitable.
The Mentally ill
Those with mental difficulties are often marginalized by society. They are tucked away so no one can see them. Often, people don’t get help because they are ashamed or embarrassed about their condition. Mental illness is a real disease and only treatment and awareness will dispel the stigma and stop the problem.
One avenue of support is through pet therapy. These animals are familiar to nursing facilities, hospitals and even schools. Why not companionship for those with mental challenges? It can be of great benefit to them. Here are some of the conditions that have been helped by pet therapy.
Mental Health Issues and Pet Therapy
- Dementia – Elderly people who may not be able to take care of a pet themselves can still have the benefit of them through pet therapy programs. Regular visits from these animals builds a relationship. The animal looks forward to the visit as much as the other person. They become a constant to help them remember more, stay socialized and return to normalcy (especially if they are living in a nursing home or assisted living facility).
- Autism – Therapy animals can draw out children who are on the autism spectrum. These interactions can be used to teach responsibility, physical development, social skills and focus. Animals can be intuitive and anticipate the needs of those they are serving once the relationship is established. Because animals are patient, children can learn at their own pace. Equine therapy (horses) has also been shown to improve the lives of autistic patients.
- PTSD – Some mental issues are a result of traumatic circumstances. In these cases, therapy animals are instrumental in recovery through their patience and unconditional acceptance of people. Caring for the animal is therapeutic in itself. It teaches responsibility, focus and trust. Animals will stay by your side and comfort you when you need a friend. They are fiercely loyal and protective. Having that support can make the tough road to recovery more bearable.
People with mental health issues can benefit from contact with a therapy pet.