It’s no secret that pet owners benefit from the companionship of their animals. Increased mood, decreased loneliness, and overall improved physical and mental health are all commonly cited positives among pet parents. But do those same benefits transfer into the therapeutic setting? According to many therapists and psychologists, the answer is yes! There are a plethora of benefits to be gained by including animal therapy in your practice, and it can be especially beneficial for disorders such as depression, alzheimers, addiction, and autism, among others. For many with mental health issues, the bond between animals and people can help distract them from their problems and reduce stress. Of course, not everyone is a good candidate for pet therapy. People who are afraid, allergic to, or dislike animals or a specific animal is probably not the best candidate for this type of program. But on the whole, a pet therapy program can be helpful for a large number of your clients.
There are many options when it comes to types of animal assisted activities that can be instituted in one's practice. The most commonly used therapy animals are dogs. Dogs have a great knack for empathy, and love attention. Therapy dogs love to be pet and handled, and smaller dogs can be held and cuddled. Larger dogs can provide significant sensory input with their weight and size. Dogs also have an excellent sense of smell, and can be used to detect things like panic attacks and seizures. In the therapy session setting, dogs give and receive care and attention. This can be incredibly beneficial for people who aren’t used to being on the receiving end of care, or who are dealing with trauma.
Cats are utilized in therapy more often than you think. Many therapy offices have an “office cat” that adds a sense of stability and comfort for patients when they come in. Having a soft cat to pet can help with stressful sessions and discussions. Nursing homes often have a cat or two for the same reason, who generally have the run of the buildings. The only negative with cats is they can’t be trained in the same way a dog can, and their affection is generally given on their own terms - and they may not want attention when it would be most needed.
Smaller animals are becoming more popular as therapy companion animals. Creatures like rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, turtles, and even chinchillas are showing up more and more as emotional support for individuals. They are small and cuddly, and require care and attention. This act of caring for the needs of something else can be very beneficial for folks who don't want to or can’t care for a larger, more active pet, or those who have limited space available.
Equine therapy is one of the fastest-growing professional animal therapy sectors. Working with horses can be extremely beneficial for the developmentally disabled, such as those who have autism or downs syndrome. Horses are highly empathetic creatures who naturally live in herds, and generally love being around people and being cared for. Horses, too, because of their size, are not as likely as smaller animals to be at risk of injury due to rough handling. Horse riding is excellent physical therapy for hypo- and hyper vestibular people, people with TBI’s and balance disorders, and physically challenged members of society who need additional help building core muscles and balance.
Equine therapy is so effective some prison programs have begun horse training programs. The interaction and trust required between horses and trainers helps prisoners learn skills that will benefit them once they are no longer incarcerated, as well as emotional benefits such as increasing their sense of self-worth. It also helps untrained horses who are more difficult to adopt find good homes.
Ask any pet parent about their “fur baby,” and they will probably whip out a phone and begin showing you endless videos and pictures of the dogs, cats, and other creatures in their life. The bond between an animal and its owner is a strong one. Mutual care, mutual attention, and mutual love can have a significant impact on stress. Animals can help regulate emotion, too - studies have proven that petting a dog can have an immediate and drastic impact on heart rate and blood pressure. By spending a few minutes with their pet therapy animal - playing with them, talking with them, brushing or caring for them, people are distracted from their issues and their problems momentarily, and the body’s stress response begins to decrease.
Interacting with pets can increase the brain’s release of dopamine, as well as oxytocin and serotonin. These are the hormones responsible for feeling good, and can have a drastic effect on one’s mood. It's also been suggested that the release of these hormones and the decrease of stress that occurs when interacting with animals can have an impact on physical pain, too.
Dogs provide innumerable therapeutic benefits to their humans, but it’s important to take a minute to discuss the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog - because there is a significant difference, both in training as well as where each type of dog is allowed and their legal status. Therapy animals may or may not have training. Most therapy dogs do have some obedience training, and their main job is to provide emotional support to their human. Therapy dogs can be found in nursing homes, hospitals, therapists’ offices, and personal homes. Therapy dogs are not considered service dogs as far as the Americans with Disabilities Act is concerned, and therefore they do not enjoy the same legal protection in public as service dogs.
Service dogs, on the other hand, have very specific training to do a specific job. Service dogs serve in this role 24/7, as opposed to a companion or therapy animal, who doesn’t have a defined role. Service dogs can be trained to identify certain behaviors or conditions, alerting their handler or other people to things like seizures, panic attacks, or low blood sugar events in diabetics. They also serve as guide dogs for the blind or deaf, and can identify or aid people with severe PTSD to anxiety attacks. The big difference between therapy dogs and service dogs is that service dogs are not pets. They have a very specific set of skills and jobs.
One of the easiest ways to benefit from animal interaction if owning an animal isn’t an option is to volunteer at a local shelter or rescue. Almost all animal care facilities would love to have additional help to provide care and interaction with the animals. Overcrowded shelters especially need teams of volunteers that keep animals socialized and adoptable. Cat cafes, pets that belong to friends, and petting zoos are other great options for informal animal interaction. For clients, finding a therapist who specializes in or has available pet therapy in the office is a great option, especially if someone is nervous around animals or has no experience with them. Lastly, for therapists, working with rescues is a great way to get to know many animals, and rescues are great at getting to know an animal's temperament and personality, then matching them with humans. Local rescues are a great place to start if you’d like to add animal therapy to your list of available services.
The companionship of an animal, the emotional stability it can bring, and the sense of caring for and being cared for another creature should not be downplayed in its significance to a therapeutic journey. For therapists, adding a small animal, such as a small dog, cat, or another small animal to their clinic or practice can give their clients an immediate mood boost and a way to help manage stress in difficult clinical settings, and potentially help them communicate more efficiently during sessions. More effective sessions are, after all, one of the things every therapist strives for.
If you’re looking for more resources for your therapy practice, whether it be how to talk to a suicidal client, good social media policies for therapists, how to be effective in online therapy, and more, Advekit’s resource center is here to help ease your job and provide comfort for all of your clients.