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Animal-Assisted Therapy: How Pet "Doctors" Can Change Lives

The bond between humans and animals is a wondrous thing. Interaction with an animal, usually of the furry kind, have been proven to have healing effects on people. Psychologicalscience.org states that sometimes,merely looking at a picture of of a cute, cuddly animal can already put a person in a good mood and even improve a person’s focus. 

Due to this ability of animals in helping lower stress levels, experts are now beginning to see the potential of animal-assisted therapy (AAT).

Thanks to Florence Nightingale who introduced this concept in the 1990s, interaction with animals has now become one of the  therapeutic alternatives. Pet therapy was integrated into patient’s treatments when she realized that patients who were suffering from chronic illness felt relieved after coming in contact with animals.
 

What It Means to Go Through Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted Therapy,  otherwise known as Pet Therapy is  a type of therapy that involves the patient, the animal/pet, the therapist and  the animal handler. Most of the time, the animal handler is actually the pet’s owner.

This different from having service animals who have disabled owners and only provide comfort and enjoyment.

Animal-assisted therapy can be used to rehabilitate people from a physical health problem or a mental health issue.

The client will go through a structured set of sessions with the animal being a means to reach a goal as part of the treatment.

Most animal-assisted therapy facilities employ the use of dogs, cats and horses in their sessions, but these are not the only animals that can help patients. Healthline.com says that a wide selection of animals from turtles, to crickets and even tarantulas can be chosen depending on the goal that the patient needs to achieve.  

This program is not only confined hospitals but also open to universities and nursing homes.

According to CNN Philippines, there is a university in Manila that is exploring the effects of pet therapy. This university is Ateneo de Manila which has a partnership with Communitails-- a team of veterans and other medical professionals who are animal enthusiasts which was formed in 2015.

In connection to this, Rappler features Bubu, one of the therapy dogs in Ateneo who stays at the guidance office. They say that there are many students who sign up for sessions because of the adorable golden retriever.
 

How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Help People?

Animal-assisted therapy has many positive mental and physical health effects.  

Psychologytoday.com states that, “...Compelling data shows that pets have the ability to relieve stress, anxiety and provide comfort to people. However, it has been shown that the positive effects of playing and petting an animal are also measurable in people without underlying clinical conditions.”

In Blanco-Suarez’s article on Psychology Today, she adds that generally, people being able to socialize with a pet can reduce distress and boost a person’s mood.

UCLA.org lists mental and physical benefits of animal-assisted therapy. PAWS for people another category to the list which involves literacy support as part of their PAWs for reading program.

Here is a summarized version of the benefits of undergoing animal-assisted therapy:

 

Physical health Benefits

- Decreases blood pressure

- Slows down the breathing of anxiety patients

- Reduces overall pain

- Exercise becomes more relaxing

- Lessens the required medication

 

Mental Health

- Petting animals increase the production of hormones designed to uplift a person’s mood (prolactin, oxytocin and serotonin)

- Gives an emotional outlet (escape or distraction)

- Boosts the brain ( Helps people with Alzheimer’s disease remember their past)

- Gives comfort

- Lessens loneliness

- Gives motivation

- Assists in overcoming speech and emotional disorders

- Reduces depression

- Reduces boredom

-Boosts social skills and builds a sense of community


 

Literacy Support

- Gives children a better focus

- Provides non-stressful, non-judgemental environment

- Gives children a better focus

- Encourages love of reading and learning


 

Who Should Try Animal Therapy?

The Mayo Clinic advises that if you are suffering a mental disorder, undergoing chemotherapy, in a long-term care facility (like the home for the aged), a veteran who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or a child having dental procedures, this kind of therapy is suitable for you.

Healthline.com  also adds that people with chronic heart failure and stroke victims should think about undergoing pet therapy too.

There are findings that they are especially helpful in assisting those overcoming depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and people who struggle with socialization.

 

Some Risks

According to Healthline.com, when considering animal-assisted therapy, the things people need to be cautious about is sanitation and safety.

Pets that are to participate in the therapy sessions should be thoroughly cleaned as well as assessed if they are healthy and have the proper behavior. Animal handlers are also required to be subjected to training.

If you are a person who has animal allergies, pet therapy may not be ideal for you.

It is a rare incident but patients can be injured by the animal during a therapy session. Likewise, improper handling of the animal may cause them harm  and injury. Be careful not to be too aggressive with the animal helping you out in your therapy, leading you to unintentionally mistreating it.

 

An Animal’s Unconditional Love Gives the Healing Touch

Why is it not always enough to turn to human therapy sessions or just tell a friend your problems? What advantage does having a pet therapy have?

For one, having an animal around is said to break the ice between the client and the therapist.  It is known to lessen the resistance of one who might have strongly opposed going through therapy.

Secondly, since humans tend to be judgmental, instead helping their fellow human, might hinder their healing process and some cases worsen their condition. Psychologytoday.com illustrates this by mentioning that there was a research carried out to compare what a person feels performing a simple task in front of a friend and that same task in front of just their pet. The study revealed that the fear of failing the task in front of a friend increases a person’s stress hormones. In contrast, performing that simple task in front of the pet did not make the person feel stressed and actually made them perform better.

On the flip side of the coin, animals accept you for who you are all the time. When they get attached to you, they will become loyal to you and will always welcome you wholeheartedly.  Amy McCullough, a researcher of pet therapy states, “They accept you for the way you are flaws and all. They are so forgiving and are always happy to see you. Their behavior is just so consistent and just so consistently happy that I think it’s just so comforting to people knowing that there is a being that you can always count on to be happy to be happy to see you and not judge you for anything you’ve done.”

Thirdly, pets make people feel more secure. Psychologytoday.com says it even gives them a safe place.

Fourthly, since some taking care of an animal is sometimes part of the treatment, it helps those who are going through psychiatric disorders find a purpose. Being able to take care of something more vulnerable makes them feel needed. This made them gain more  self-efficacy or confidence in doing tasks.

If you are interested in doing through animal-assisted therapy, ask a doctor today. Help an animal help you. Reaching out your hand to a pet may be the step you need to take you closer to  healing in your road to recovery.


 



 

 

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