Pet therapy (also known as animal-assisted therapy) is a complementary type of therapy that involves the use of animals to facilitate patient recovery. Science has long supported the idea of human and animal interaction as a form of healing and this has translated well into the medical field. Dogs and cats are the primary animals used for pet therapy, but dolphins, horses, and other animals that pass the criteria can be considered as well.
Pet therapy is structured in a way that defines how the animal can benefit the patient in a therapeutic setting. The objective of the therapy may be physiological, psychological, or emotional in nature.
Benefits of pet therapy
Pet therapy brings plenty of benefits for patients of all ages and genders. It builds upon the already established bond between humans and animals and uses that connection to accelerate recovery.
For one, pet therapy helps reduce blood pressure for patients with hypertension. It also boosts cardiovascular health and releases endorphins in the brain that provides a calming effect. This can help relieve stress, pain, and improve the patient’s overall state of mind.
A few examples of how pet therapy can benefit a patient:
- Reduces risks of depression and improve the overall outlook in life
- Helps the patient cope with feelings of loneliness and isolation
- Aids children in learning emphatic and nurturing skills
- Provides much-needed stimulation for elderly patients
- Encourages physical activity and exercise
Most of all, pet therapy provides patients with a sense of unconditional love, safety, and acceptance that puts them at ease during their treatment. Because of this, withdrawn or non-communicable patients may start to open up about their recovery and make the most out of pet therapy.
Goals of pet therapy
Depending on the goal of the treatment, pet therapy can be incorporated in a variety of ways. Defining objectives are an integral part of pet therapy and the progress is tracked after each session.
Some examples of objectives for pet therapy are:
- Enhancing motor skills
- Boosting self-esteem
- Developing social skills
- Added motivation for exercising
- Improving assisted or independent movement
- Increase interaction with both humans and animals
- Encourage participation in activities
Pet therapy can prove useful for aged-care residents, veterans with PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), patients undergoing chemotherapy, and more. Even stroke victims can benefit greatly from pet therapy by helping them regain their motor skills through increased physical activities. People with sensory disabilities (deaf, blind, and mute) can communicate more easily through an animal, thus encouraging interaction with their healthcare providers.
Some patients experience less anxiety during a medical procedure if they have a pet companion by their side. In rehabilitation, the patients may feel even more motivated to stick to their therapy when accompanied by a pet.
Administering pet therapy
Before pet therapy is administered, the patient’s healthcare provider will determine if they are a good candidate for the treatment. The doctors will ask the patient if they have existing pet allergies and evaluate their medical history in the process. They’ll also ask the consent of the patient’s family members if they feel comfortable with their loved one undergoing therapy. Aged care centres such as Homestyle Aged Care will make these arrangements. Once everything is set and the patient agrees to undergo pet therapy, the doctors will start administering the treatment.
The first step is selecting a suitable animal for the patient. Both the animal and the trainer must complete a number of procedures before participating in pet therapy. Here are the requirements:
- Must pass a physical exam of the animal to confirm that it is free of diseases and has been immunised
- Must complete an obedience training course to ensure proper control of the animal.
- Must undergo an instructional course that teaches the animal how to interact with patients
- Must pass a behavioural exam to assess the temperament of the animal.
- Must obtain a certificate from the sponsoring organisation
Once they’ve successfully completed the tasks, the trainer and the animal will be assigned for therapy based on the patient’s needs.
Risks of pet therapy
While pet therapy provides a plethora of advantages, there are a couple of risks worth noting. The first and foremost is the safety of the patients. Patients who are allergic to pet dander may experience allergic reactions such as a runny nose, watery eyes, postnasal drip, and facial pressure/pain.
The patient can also suffer from an injury if the trainer and animal do not have enough experience. This is what makes training and evaluation very important before pet therapy is administered to ensure a beneficial experience for the patient. The animals themselves may also be at risk of injury if not handled appropriately.
Although rare, patients may become possessive of the animals after developing a dependence, causing them to lose self-confidence and feel isolated after their pet therapy has concluded.
Outlook on pet therapy
The outlook on pet therapy is quite positive as long as realistic expectations are established. Both the healthcare provider and the patient should discuss the objectives of the therapy in complete detail to acquire a better understanding of how the treatment will benefit the latter. The key is to keep track of the patient’s progress and see if the therapy itself is working to their advantage. If the progress is noticeable slow, the healthcare provider may alter the treatment plan by using a different animal and adjusting the duration of the therapy.
The use of animals as healers has found its way onto many therapeutic programmes. From aged care homes to hospitals and substance abuse centres, it’s clear that the human-animal bond plays an integral role in our overall health and well-being. In general, pet therapy is a supplementary treatment that is capable of enhancing a patient’s recovery. Children and adults can benefit greatly from the therapy and can provide physical, mental, and emotional advantages.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg.
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