The Healing Potential Of Animals: What Is Animal Therapy?
Animal therapy, also known as pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy, is a type of mental health treatment that allows clients to receive therapeutic support and comfort from an animal. This type of therapy uses animals like horses, dogs, cats, pigs, and birds to complement traditional therapy. Animals may increase the efficacy of conventional treatment methods and help clients feel less isolated in their experiences.
Types Of Animals Used In Animal Therapy
Dogs are among the most commonly used in pet therapy. Do therapy dogs work? Research indicates that the presence of therapy dogs can reduce anxiety and stress. Although many people know about therapy dogs, several types of animals are used in animal-assisted therapy. Animals like horses, cats, birds, and pigs may help clients connect with another living being and feel supported during their therapeutic process.
These animals can contribute to treating mental illness and may offer health benefits like reducing chronic pain symptoms.
- The availability of animal-assisted therapy in their city
- The type of animal they hope to connect with
- Whether they want to care for the animal or sit with it during sessions
- The cost of each type of therapy
- The session length
- Whether the type of animal therapy includes talk therapy or not
- The location where the therapy will take place
Who Can Benefit From Animal Therapy?
Anyone can benefit from animal-assisted therapy, and you do not have to have a mental health diagnosis to do so. However, those experiencing mental illness may also find benefits, including those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, or a type of neurodiversity, like autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Anyone of any age, gender, or background may experience the benefits of incorporating animals into their therapy sessions. Therapy animals can provide clients with a sense of comfort, safety, and love. Some people find that animals soothe them and help them manage their emotions. Others might feel that caring for an animal helps them feel in control of their actions and find the motivation to wake up and leave home.
What Are Examples Of Animal Therapy?
Animal-assisted therapy can also be flexible and doesn't necessarily have to happen weekly as part of a therapy session. For example, some clients might visit an animal once a month for a short period, referred to as animal visitation. Seeing an animal as part of your treatment plan may help you recharge and feel prepared for your regular therapy sessions or daily life.
A few examples of animal visitation or types of animal therapy can include the following:
Support horses that individuals visit periodically to brush, groom, and ride
Farms where clients can go for a day to help with farm chores and play with animals
Therapy dogs that are brought to a client's home, hospital, or therapy session to offer emotional support
Birds, rodents, reptiles, or other small pets that are brought into a support group to educate clients on animal care and allow them to connect with an animal
Therapy cats that live in an inpatient mental health facility and offer support to all residents
The Benefits Of Animal-Assisted Treatments
Animal-assisted interventions may improve trust and self-esteem in clients experiencing mental health concerns. Bonding with an animal can facilitate communication, socialization, self-control, and mood stabilization, all of which may benefit a wide variety of clients.
However, animal-assisted therapy does not only improve mental and emotional health. Clients may find it helps with physical conditions, including motion and strength issues or balance and mobility problems. Studies have shown that spending time with animals can aid in chronic disease and reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels caused by stress. Motivation, emotional control, and self-esteem may also be enhanced.
For this reason, many inpatient centers, hospitals, hospice centers, and nursing homes offer animal-assisted therapy to their residents. Some centers may have their own resident therapy animal that provides care to those who pass through.
What's The Difference Between Animal Therapy, Service Animals, And ESAs?
There are a few distinct ways that animals can be used therapeutically, and it can be beneficial to know the differences between them, including the following.
Animal-assisted therapy, complementing traditional therapy, involves using animals as part of regular therapy sessions or temporary therapeutic visits, like an animal visitation. The goals of these sessions may be physical, mental, emotional, or social. Often, the animals are trained therapy animals approved to enter buildings to provide support. However, they work for many clients and are not specific to one handler, like a service animal.
A service animal is a dog or mini horse trained to aid a handler with a disability by providing one or more direct tasks, not including emotional support. The training for service dogs involves advanced obedience, public entry, and task training. Service animals may enter any public space with their owner under the ADA, are safe under housing laws through the FHA, and can enter aircraft.
Service animals can be psychiatric or provide physical support. They can also be owner-trained, trained by a behaviorist, or purchased from a program. Service dogs do not require registration, identification, or specific unique licensing in the US. They may have a program card if purchased from a program, but no official documentation is required for a service dog to enter a business.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are pets designated by a medical professional to provide emotional relief to a person experiencing a mental health challenge. Dogs or other pets that you own can be emotional support animals. To live with an emotional support animal in non-pet-friendly housing, you will need a note from a therapist or doctor, not purchased from a website.
ESAs are not controlled and are not required to be trained, so they cannot accompany an individual in public places. They are not covered under the ADA, which is the law in the US that discusses public entry for those with disabilities. In addition, ESAs are not task-trained, like service animals, and emotional support does not qualify as a task. Emotional support animals can be any pet and offer support to one person. Their presence is to reduce symptoms of a mental health condition or offer emotional support.
Animal Therapy For Dementia
Those living with dementia may experience benefits when using animal-assisted treatment. Dementia can cause feelings of fear and loss of control, and animal therapy can be comforting during these times. When animals are added to traditional therapy, clients may feel less alone in their experiences.
Many older adults with dementia may desire to care for a pet or adopt an animal. However, due to their condition, they may not be able to care for one safely. An animal can visit the individual in these cases to provide support, play, and enjoyment. The individual may feel that they are caring for the pet and that it is their responsibility while it is still under its handler's supervision.
Healthcare providers have used animal-assisted therapy in settings from nursing homes to hospices. Some centers may care for a therapy animal that can live in the center and wander from room to room to support residents as they live in a new environment. In addition, pet therapy can provide emotional support to those experiencing a terminal diagnosis.
How To Get A Support Animal At Home
Deciding whether to get a service animal or ESA can depend on several factors, including your budget, mental health needs, and current US laws. ESAs can provide emotional support at home and are no different from a pet, except that they can live in non-pet-friendly housing.
However, if you believe you have a disability that could benefit from specific tasks and 24/7 guidance from a dog, you might benefit from a service animal. Many programs offer psychiatric service dogs for conditions like PTSD or anxiety. These dogs can provide tasks like deep pressure therapy (DPT), dissociation alerts, medication retrieval, and waking their handler from a nightmare, among many others.
If you choose a service dog, meet with a service dog trainer to discuss your options. Some owners choose to train their own service dogs. However, note that owner-trained dogs are still required to follow public entry laws, including obedience, leash laws, and task training. If you receive a dog from a program, it may be trained for you over time and delivered to you at around one year after supervised visits and instruction from the program.
Can You Do Animal Therapy Online?
As telehealth has become increasingly popular, the use of animals in online therapy sessions has been reviewed. There are a couple of ways online animal-assisted therapy can occur. Therapists may bring their pets or therapy animals into online sessions with clients, and clients can be encouraged to include their own pets. The preliminary review conducted at the University of Saskatchewan noted that participants of an online therapy dog program felt a sense of connectedness and well-being and reported positive mental health impacts.
Animal-assisted therapy sessions can offer comfort and support to clients. However, if you are living with symptoms of anxiety, depression, or distress, it can be challenging to leave home. Through online therapy, you can partake in sessions from a device at home and choose a flexible time slot that fits your needs. If you hope to try online animal therapy, consider signing up for a platform like BetterHelp and noting your requests in the intake questionnaire.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Below are a few frequently asked questions about animal-assisted therapy.
What Is The Most Common Animal Used In Animal-Assisted Therapy?
Dogs, horses, and cats are the most common animals used for therapy. Dog-assisted therapy is common because dogs can support those living with mental and physical ailments, improving anxiety and cardiovascular health and supporting those in critical care. Peer-reviewed studies indicate therapy dogs and other animals as supportive of physical therapy, improving motor skills in children.
Is Animal Therapy Effective?
Animal therapy can be an invaluable service and a staple of integrative medicine. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the human-animal bond can significantly impact human health and well-being.
What Is An Animal Therapist Called?
An animal therapist can be called an animal-assisted therapist or therapy dog handler. These therapists are trained to process and work with animals to comfort client's safety.
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