Contributed by Christine Binney
Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to live with a pet knows the strong bond that exists between humans and animals. Animals have long been valued for their companionship, intelligence and loyalty. These traits are the reason that animals are so well-suited to serve as therapeutic partners. Therapy animals aren’t just cute, they can really help people to overcome trauma and disabilities.
Therapy animals were first used in the 1700s in mental health facilities. After World War II, they were also used by the American Red Cross to care for recovering soldiers. Today, there are numerous pet therapy programs throughout the country, working to assist in the recovery of people of all ages and walks of life. These animals are used in physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy departments. They are also brought into hospitals, rehabilitation centers and nursing homes to provide companionship and unconditional affection to patients, lifting spirits and providing a much-needed escape from the drudgery of treatment routines.
Studies have shown that there are many psychological benefits that come from interacting with animals. For instance, petting a dog that you have bonded with promotes a decrease in blood pressure, stress and anxiety while also increasing calmness, morale and outlook. It has also been shown that people who know there are going to be animals present at their therapy sessions are more likely to attend the session and will spend a longer duration during their recommended therapeutic activities.
While dogs may be the most well-known of all therapy animals, there are plenty of other species that make excellent therapeutic companions. Cats, rabbits, birds, guinea pigs, miniature pigs, horses, miniature horses, llamas, donkeys and dolphins have all been used as a part of successful therapy practices.
For the elderly
In nursing homes, therapy animals are key to enhancing an individual’s quality of life. When elderly people are brought to nursing homes or long-term care facilities, they may be experiencing the loss of a loved one and a lack of regular visitors. This can quickly cause them to become depressed, lethargic, passive, withdrawn and antisocial. However, animals can be helpful in motivating these patients to remain mentally and physically active. The simple act of petting a warm and affectionate animal, grooming them and feeding them gives patients something to look forward to and a sense of meaning in their days.
For sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder
After suffering through a harrowing event, some people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and experience severe stress and anxiety that disrupts their daily lives. Specially trained dogs can help those who are suffering from PTSD by providing a sense of security and calm. Not only do PTSD service dogs provide important emotional support, they also provide more tangible benefits. They can be trained to prevent people from crowding around or rushing up behind a PTSD sufferer in public places. They can be trained to provide assessments of an environment and guide the handler away from stressful situations. They can even give signals when needed to interrupt repetitive or damaging behavior or flashbacks or to remind the handler to take his or her medication.
Therapy dogs are often used to provide assistance to diabetics by providing continuous glucose monitoring. Amazingly, these dogs are trained using scent detection techniques that allow them to identify changes that occur in body odor as a result of blood sugar levels that move above or below normal ranges. They will persistently alert their handlers until blood sugar is back to normal. If their handlers are non-responsive, the dogs will seek assistance from other people.
Therapy animals have also been shown to be a successful part of therapy for autistic children and adults, blind people, children of military families, veterans, victims of sexual abuse, and patients undergoing chemotherapy or other difficult medical treatments. The impact of their companionship on the health and well-being of those who need it most cannot be underestimated.