Living with pets – whether it is a dog, a cat, a rabbit or even a sheep – has extraordinary positive effects on people. It is well known that dogs have helped man fight loneliness for thousands of years, but the many benefits of living with a puppy are not limited to the company they offer.
In recent years, several scientific studies on pet therapy have shown the exceptional improvement that the presence of an animal has on human health. Pet therapy works wonders especially with children, the elderly and people with disabilities. As a result, Pet Therapy, a form of Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI), is becoming increasingly popular.
Let us find out together how contact with a four-legged friend can help people with mental and physical problems and how to decide which animal best suits you for your own pet therapy.
What is Pet Therapy?
Pet therapy refers to a kind of therapy that involves animals as means to treat the diseased. This term was coined by the American psychiatrist Boris Levinson in the early ’60s. The advantages offered by patients’ contact with animals are combined with and support other kind of therapies that patients may be undergoing.
How was pet therapy conceived? At the beginning of the twentieth century, animal therapy began to have some relevance, since it helped improve the patients’ recovery process. In the United States, after the end of the First World War, dogs were employed as compagnons of people affected by schizophrenia and war veterans.
Later, Levinson realized that pet therapy could offer the benefits that can be drawn from the act of taking care of a living being. In fact, pets have been found to reduce anxiety, lower stress-levels and help fighting depression. Moreover, cuddling and petting pets stimulates creativity and observational skills.
Pet therapy is not a therapy in itself: it just provides a support intervention that can strengthen and make more effective traditional therapies. Its main advantage is that it works perfectly on patients suffering from the most different pathologies, as it allows to benefit from the unique man-animal relationship to improve the quality of life and health of patients.
The pet therapy which is considered to be the most effective involves dogs. It is certainly not a surprise that men manage to establish the most intense relationship with “man’s best friend” and this makes dogs the absolute protagonist of pet therapy.
Canine-assisted therapy is based on dog-assisted intervention to promote health and healing. It is extraordinarily effective because dogs are naturally affectionate, in a spontaneous and sincere way. Their psychological mechanism does not involve calculation and their will to engage with people is not motivated by interest. Moreover, dogs have the surprising ability to interpret human body’s language. In fact, dogs are able to perceive human emotional state thanks to our body’s hormonal secretions. For example, when they detect anxiety, fear or sadness, they react in a lively and playful way, transmitting warmth and serenity.
Pet therapy with dogs – even with trained ones – has, therefore, spread in hospitals and schools, finding many application areas:
- Hospitals: dogs are very useful to improve adults and children convalescence period;
- Institutes for the elderly or disabled: in this kind of environments, dogs bring joy and happiness, as they enrich the daily lives of patients;
- Schools: dogs stimulate children’s creativity, their powers of observation and, in particular cases, they may help deal with shyness and aggression. Their effectiveness is giving rise to more and more Pet therapy projects in primary schools.
The dog-patient relationship is based on an exceptional balance and exchange of roles: men and dogs take care of each other, stimulating self-confidence and trust in each other. The potential of this animal makes it a favorite pet in the therapy and healing pathways.
Pet therapy with cats takes advantage of their nature, as they tend to be calm, lazy and love to play.
Cat-assisted intervention is now considered the new frontier of anti-stress treatments. In fact, this natural remedy helps face everyday life with ease and serenity. People who choose to have cat therapy allow themselves a moment of sweetness and pampering as a relief against everyday hardships. Many studies have shown that pampering pets lowers stress levels and anxiety, since it has a calming effect on the internal cardiovascular system.
The success of this co-therapy strongly depends on the personality of the single cat. In fact, there are some specific cat breeds that are more suitable for pet therapy because of their particularly gentle and quiet nature:
- Sphynx: this hairless cat is particularly affectionate and loves to be pampered;
- Siam: characterized by two big blue eyes, it is considered one of the most extrovert cats. It is funny, playful and always ready for caresses;
- Ragdoll: it is also called “rag doll” because when it is lifted it relaxes all its muscles which makes it look just like a rag doll. It also tends to be sweet and tolerant. It is perfect for pet therapy as it quickly becomes attached to its owner by establishing a very deep emotional bond.
Pet Therapy for Children
Animal-assisted therapy takes advantage of the relationship that humans and animals build together. This relationship is characterised by a very complex harmony that, if successful, stimulates emotions and opens the mind.
In most cases, this kind of therapy is adopted with children, the elderly and people with disabilities or psychiatric disorders.
Animal-assisted therapy for children is very useful since interactions with animals can have great benefits such as developing faster learning processes or learning to take responsibility of another living creature.
As a result, co-therapy offers children a great opportunity for growth. However, it should never be used as a substitute for psychotherapy or drug therapies, since pet therapy was conceived as a treatment which supports other therapies.
Children’s natural empathy for animals is the key to the success of this type of assisted therapy.Being close to puppies allows children to “train” their emotions. In fact, from the very first years of life, they begin to become aware of the needs and responsibilities implied by living with a furry friend.
When children interact with an animal in a pet therapy context, they learn to care for a living being, as well as to respect its diversity and its needs. But there is more! Children who experience small levels of responsibility – brushing the animal’s hair, taking the dog out, feeding it and giving it something to drink – have been seen to develop higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence. These tasks, in fact, strengthen the ego in children and foster their growth as individuals, thus helping them to develop a more solid and positive self-image.
Pet Therapy and Alzheimer
Pet therapy is based on the idea that the human relationship with animals plays an important role in the therapeutic and healing process. Today, experts are increasingly convinced that pet therapy is one of the non-pharmacological practices that offers the greatest benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Since the elderlies are the part of the population which is most affected by this disease, it is possible to talk about pet therapy for elderly people.
In these cases, the animal-assisted intervention is generally combined with other activities – such as music therapy or physical exercise – which aim to stimulate cognitive processes.
Patients get usually in contact with dogs, cats or horses, but for now the best results have been reached with the help of “man’s best friend”. Dogs most suitable for pet therapy are Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Yorkshire and German Shepherds.
The benefits of pet therapy for people with Alzheimer’s are:
- Improve physical and cognitive skills: pet therapy has been seen to improve patients’ mobility and balance. This comes with no surprise since walking, brushing, and feeding an animal are all activities that stimulate motor and sensory abilities, thus helping patients being autonomous as much as possible. Moreover, pets represent for patients an element of novelty which awakens their cognitive skills such as attention and concentration;
- Improve life quality: just like normal pets, animals which are specifically trained for pet therapy increase the well-being and happiness of those around them, helping them fight loneliness and depression;
- Strengthen memory: patients who are responsible for a pet have to try hard not to forget to take care of it by remembering to perform some daily activities, which involve both their pet but also everyday tasks such as combing their own hair or tying their shoes;
- Improve mood: training helps animals, especially dogs, develop the ability to awaken very positive emotions in people, thus helping reduce sadness and aggression.
Courses in Animal-Assisted Therapy
If you want to become a professional specialized in animal-assisted interventions, you should attend specific pet therapy courses that are provided by specific educational institutions. There are also post-graduate specialization courses, including the course in Animal-Assisted Activities and Therapy in such State Universities as those of Milan, Pisa, Genoa or Turin. These universities, however, offer a degree valid only in Italy.
Given the widespread use of pet therapy, in June 2009 the Italian Ministry of Health established the CRN (National Reference Centre for Animal-assisted Interventions with Specifically Trained Pets) and published the National Guidelines for Animal-Assisted Intervention in order to standardize the professional and therapeutic path, thus helping to clarify how to become a pet therapy operator.
An AAI expert works in a multi-professional medical team which has a specific training in pet therapy. The team is usually composed of a veterinarian, a person in charge of the current project, a figure specialized in animal training and a psychologist.