How can animal therapy nourish your soul?
Animal-assisted therapy, sometimes shortened to ‘animal therapy’, involves specialised healthcare practitioners supporting people’s emotional, physical and mental wellbeing by facilitating their interaction with animals. Animals used for therapy are often specifically trained for the role, with dogs, cats and horses being the most common types of animals involved. People participating in animal-assisted therapy might also interact with guinea pigs, rabbits, farm animals and parrots. Sometimes trained dolphins are used for therapeutic purposes, but the effectiveness of this is questioned, and there are concerns about how this may impact the animals’ welfare.
This healing modality is often integrated into a psychological treatment program, but may also be used in a range of different settings ranging from hospital visits to supervised horse riding for people with disabilities. Some animal therapy practitioners may provide individualised training to enable animals to support people with specific health concerns or disabilities.
You may be wondering, “What is animal therapy in comparison with pet therapy?” The answer is that pet therapy is more of an umbrella term which includes any therapeutic interactions between people and animals that can be kept as pets. Animal-assisted therapy, on the other hand, is a structured and goal-directed process facilitated by a trained practitioner.
Another potential point of uncertainty is the difference between therapy animals and assistance animals. Although service animals in both types of roles are trained to support people in specific ways, only assistance animals are registered to be allowed full public access in areas where pets and other animals are normally not permitted. This is because they may offer potentially life-saving assistance, for example by being trained to respond to early warning signs that a person is about to have a seizure.
Benefits of animal therapy
According to the results of a meta-analysis, animal-assisted therapy may improve the emotional wellbeing of people with autism. Interacting with animals in a structured, therapeutic setting may help people manage symptoms of trauma and provide meaningful emotional support for survivors of sexual abuse. There is evidence to suggest animal-assisted therapy may improve motivation, increase the appreciation of pleasant activities, and general enhance quality of life in people suffering from schizophrenia.
A number of studies have been done into the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for the wellbeing of elderly people. A review of available research suggests interacting with animals may have a beneficial effect on “behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia”, but how long this effect may last has not been established.
It is reported that pet therapy may have measurable physiological benefits such as improving oxygen saturation levels, as well as possibly reducing the symptoms of depression in chemotherapy patients. There is research to suggest interacting with therapy animals may increase focus in children with pervasive developmental disorders, as well as improve their awareness of their social environment.
The results of one study suggest visits from a therapy dog may significantly reduce emotional distress and pain intensity in people suffering from chronic pain. Animal-assisted therapy has also been studied as a way of significantly improving the chances of successful rehabilitation for people undergoing treatment for substance abuse.
Animal therapy may assist in relieving symptoms related to:
- Alcohol and drug addiction
- Behavioural issues
- Communication and self-expression
- Confidence and self-esteem
- Dementia and alzheimer's
- Developmental disorders
- Eczema and psoriasis
- Learning difficulties
- Mobility and movement
- Mood imbalances
- Motivation and procrastination
- Parkinson’s disease
- PTSD and trauma
- Schizophrenia and psychosis
- Speech and language issues
- Stress and tension
What to expect from an animal therapy session
Because animal-assisted therapy may take so many different forms, what will happen during your session depends on the reason you are seeking treatment for yourself or a loved one.
Dogs are the most popular therapy animals, and a session often involves the animal therapy practitioner visiting a hospital, school or other location. The practitioner may invite children or adults to assist in grooming, feeding or training the animal. In other cases, the therapy animal may be based in a clinic and support the treatment of people who visit to receive psychological counselling.
Equine-assisted therapy will normally begin with your practitioner talking to you about your goals for the session, discussing what activities you are comfortable with, and explaining how to interact safely with horses. Your practitioner will introduce you to the therapy horses, which you will be invited to groom or lead around a paddock.
An animal-therapy session for children might include speech therapy when talking about what guinea pigs eat, and occupational therapy when helping children buy food for the animals. The session may continue with social-development activities based on feeding the guinea pigs, and enable children to experience and understand sharing, or looking after vulnerable creatures.
Dogs, horses, and most other animals used for interactive animal therapy programs are expertly trained and undergo rigorous veterinary screening for possible infectious diseases. However, as with any exercise or wellness program, it is always important to consult your medical professional before commencing animal-assisted therapy. If you have an injury or other health issue, or any concerns at all, also speak to your animal therapy provider, who will be happy to address these and personalise the session to your individual requirements.