The Bright Side of Animal Assisted Therapy


For many amongst us, pets are our best friends; friends with whom we can share our deepest secrets and loneliness, and who give us a sense of security and unconditional love. But it seems like our good old friend has a much bigger and better role to play in our lives than just being a friend, that of a therapist. Yes, you have heard me right. Pet therapy is increasingly finding acceptance, especially given the context that at many times conventional treatments have failed to diagnose and treat ailments related to psychological and behavioral disorders, among others. Today, apart from be used alongside conventional treatments, so as to supplement it, pet therapy is also used as a stand-alone treatment.

Definition of Pet Therapy

Pet therapy in its broadest includes animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as well as other activities assisted by animals. In animal-assisted therapy, dogs, cats, horses and in some cases even dolphins are used to treat a wide range of health problems like heart diseases, mental disorders, cancer, low blood pressure and low cholesterol levels. And there is empirical proof that animals have a calming effect on humans. Someone who has a pet at home is less likely to suffer from anxiety and high blood pressure. This, experts claim, happens because pets negate the sense of loneliness by promoting positive social behavior. The animals used for animal assisted therapy are mostly trained and seek to assist humans to improve their emotional, social and physical well-being.

By contrast, animal assisted activities (AAA) have a more simplistic role, that of providing patients, say at a nursing home, comfort and enjoyment. These activities apart from helping motivate patients, are also used to assist a child who is facing learning abilities, or just to improve the quality of life.

Conditions that can be treated with animal-assisted therapy

  • Treatment of autism: Pet therapy is most commonly used to treat patients suffering from post traumatic stress, especially life-altering incidents like divorce, job loss, loss of a near or dear one, loss of a limb in an accident, and the like. But evidences suggest that pet therapy works best with children who suffer from autism. One explanation to this unique phenomenon could be attributed to the fact pets are more loyal and non-judgmental, something that is of great importance for a child whose ability to interact normally with the society they live in is very thin. Children with autism tend to have low self esteem and may find it difficult to even carry out the basic physiotherapy sessions, and may completely shut themselves off. But with pet threapy, it is a completely different matter. They will put away their inhibitions and interact in a way otherwise a normal child would do.
  • Treatment of mental trauma: Pet therapy encourages social interaction, and as such is useful for treating patients suffering from mental trauma. Take for example a rape victim –for her it is an incident that will carry scars throughout the rest of her life. At many times it has been seen that the victims are too scared to confide the incident to anyone for fear of being ridiculed and typecasted. Then there are occasions when the culprit is someone close to the family or even a relative. In such situations it is not uncommon for the victim to lose all her trust in humans, and go into a shell. No amount of cajoling or assurance may then work which may complicate matters as completely cutting off from society may mentally affect her. It is here that animal assisted therapy can play and plays such an important role. She can use the pet to reveal the hurt that is hidden inside her and to regain her lost trust and confidence.

In other cases, Dogs are used for treating soldiers with PTSD and help them treat the emotional trauma.

Treatment of anxiety, blood pressure and cholesterol related issues: As already discussed, pets have a calming effect which pulls down anxiety and blood pressure levels. Also, pet therapy is an easy way to keep your cholesterol levels in check.

Dogs are the primary healers, but cats come a close second

Dogs leads the when it comes to animals that are being used for animal assisted therapy. Dogs are especially a big hit among the kids because they love to run around and play. Kids don’t like to stay still for long and dogs provide them that element of luxury and companionship that they long for. Even then the story is not all about dogs, as cats too are increasingly used for therapy sessions. Unlike dogs, they are however more likely to be used for treating adults who can take the cat in their laps and feel the warmth and affection of the bonding. This bonding helps the participant to de-stress and feel loved. Larger animals like horses and dolphins are also in vogue, though it is necessary for the patient to consult professionals before choosing a particular animal for the therapy.

What precautions need to be taken when seeking animal assisted therapy (AAT)?

We must bear in mind that animals are prone to sudden bursts of violence which can be a security concern. So, the people who are administering AAT must ensure that the animals are properly trained and vaccinated. The animals must be healthy and free from any kind of diseases that may be a threat to humans. It is in fact the duty of the organizations offering AAT to have all the documents in place declaring the up-to-date status of the animals. Moreover, pet therapies should be conducted only in the presence of certified professionals if there is a larger animal, like a horse or dolphin in question.

Some people jump into the bandwagon just because others are doing so. But with AAT, it is better to be circumspect. The reason behind this is that many of us respond to the presence of animals differently. Some of us have allergies to a specific animal, while some may not. In certain cases the conditions are so severe that patients have to be rushed to hospitals for emergency treatments. So, before going too far with the procedure get a fair answer to these pertinent questions.