Animal therapy or pet therapy refers to the use of animals as a way to help people cope with and recover from some physical and mental health conditions.
Depending on the function of the therapy, people may choose from various animals, including dogs, horses, and birds. Animal assisted therapy is not the only therapeutic option in most cases, but it can be a good choice for some people.
Keep reading to learn more, including how it works, who it may benefit, and more.
Animal therapy, also called pet therapy or animal assisted therapy, refers to various services using animals to help people with specific physical or mental health conditions.
Animals may be able to provide comfort, alert others if someone is in danger, or even perform direct actions to help a person’s condition when they are in need. It is a type of complementary or alternative therapy. It should enhance but not replace other treatments.
On the whole, the goal of animal assisted therapy is to alleviate or help people cope with some symptoms of various conditions where possible.
The exact type of animal therapy can vary greatly depending on what condition the person has, the type of animal, and what kind of therapy they provide.
Animal therapy builds on a concept called the human-animal bond, which describes people’s desire to interact with and relate to animals. For many people, by interacting with a friendly animal, they can form a bond with them. This bond can produce a calming state in the person.
This bond itself may help the person in several ways,
- reducing boredom
- increasing movement and activity through walks and play
- providing companionship and decreasing loneliness
- increasing social interactions
- improving mood and general well-being
The positive interactions with an animal may lead to benefits in the mind and body, such as reduced stress and an overall more balanced mental and emotional state.
Animal therapy partially uses this bond in a directed way to achieve the goals of the therapy.
Animal therapy can have several goals, and these will determine how it works. The type of therapy and target for this therapy may change depending on the condition and the type of aid that a person needs. Some examples include:
- providing comfort and reducing levels of pain
- improving movement or motor skills
- developing social or behavioral skills
- increasing motivation toward activities such as exercise or interacting with others
The process of animal therapy itself typically involves the animal’s handler, who is often the owner, bringing the animal to each session. The handler will work under a doctor’s guidance to help the person achieve the goals of their therapy.
A number of organizations train handlers and connect them to healthcare providers. Many handlers work as volunteers. Before getting approval for therapy use, both the animal and the handler will have to go through various certifications with these groups and organizations.
The handler must generally pass an instructional course on how to interact with people and perform the types of therapies that they may provide.
The animal also has to go through certain checks. These will include checking immunization records and performing physical exams to ensure that the animal is generally healthy and free of disease. They will also have to undergo temperament testing to make sure that they behave properly with both the handler and other people.
Additionally, the pair will go through obedience training. This rigorous testing and certification ensures the safety and professionalism of everyone involved and helps give the person access to the best therapy sessions possible.
It is important to note that a therapy dog is not the same as a service dog and does not have all of the same rights. For example, a therapy dog cannot accompany a handler into a business establishment.
Animal therapy may help people with a range of health issues.
The Pet Partners organization note that these therapies may improve many important markers of stress and disorder by:
- decreasing anxiety and stress
- decreasing perceptions of pain
- reducing feelings of fear or worry
- increasing feelings of social support
- providing motivation, stimulation, and focus
The researchers note that the therapy may be beneficial for people from many different age groups with various conditions. For example, a
Together, these factors may make the therapy helpful for aspects of conditions such as:
- autism spectrum disorder
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Some people going through rehabilitation for a
Some forms of animal therapy may also help with markers of physical conditions, including:
- heart failure
- pain from cancer treatment
- postoperative recovery
- recovery after a major stroke or another condition that causes a person to lose motor skills
Working with an animal in these cases may motivate the person to continue therapy, boost their mood, and reduce signs of pain. For physical conditions, it may help them move correctly and exercise often.
Additionally, some long-term care facilities may offer pet therapy programs to help improve the mood and general well-being of people in these facilities.
A study in Psychogeriatrics found that dog assisted therapy in long-term elderly care facilities helped reduce symptoms of depression. The research suggests that the dogs help facilitate social interaction and create positive emotional responses.
However, more research is necessary to confirm the benefits of animal therapy.
While animal therapy may be helpful for people with certain health issues, it may not be right for everyone.
Some people may be allergic to the animals that commonly play a role in therapy. Many people are allergic to the dander from a dog’s shedding, for example. For these individuals, animal therapy with a dog could cause far more harm than good.
Others may simply be uncomfortable with or afraid of the animals. They may not choose this type of therapy as it would cause them more stress.
In some cases, a person may become very attached to the animal rather quickly. This feeling could lead to possessiveness or actually decrease a person’s satisfaction with therapy.
Additionally, therapy animals that visit hospitals and other long-term facilities may be carriers of certain infections or diseases. There may be a chance of them spreading these infections to other people, making thorough testing important for any animal.
Animal therapy is a complementary treatment. It is not a basis for the treatment of any condition and should only enhance or complement other treatment. It is not a replacement for other forms of therapy, such as psychotherapy or physical therapy.
This form of therapy might not suit everyone, however. People who do not respond well to animal therapy or are not interested in trying it may ask about other options. These alternatives will vary depending on the person’s condition.
Animal therapy involves regular sessions with professionally trained animals and their handlers. It aims to help people cope with both physical and mental health disorders.
Doctors or mental health specialists may recommend and administer animal therapy for various conditions, with different goals in mind for each person.
Some people may not enjoy animal therapy or have other reasons to avoid it, and they can choose from alternative therapies.
Anyone considering animal therapy should discuss the process and how they may benefit from it with a doctor or mental health specialist.