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The Healing Power of Animals: Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Published on: July 20, 2022

a nurse, little girl and woman gather around a dog

Imagine going to the hospital to have surgery and being able to take your favorite pet with you. While that scenario is unlikely to happen due to hospital protocols, you can, in reality, have a dog, cat or even a horse help with your recovery. How? Through animal-assisted therapy.

If you are an animal lover, you can bring joy to people facing their most challenging situations by becoming a therapy animal trainer or handler. You can train your own pet, or you can get a pet specifically to train as a therapy animal. Either way, you will bring joy to people as you help speed up healing and increase support for people in treatment settings.

If you think that working with therapy animals is a good fit for your passions and skills, then it’s time to take a closer look at what animal-assisted therapy is and how to become a trainer or handler.

What Is Animal-Assisted or Pet Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy, also known as pet therapy, uses dogs and other animals, including horses, to help people as they recover from physical and mental health conditions. The companionship of the animal has proven benefits in both medical and psychological work.

How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work?

When someone is dealing with a serious medical or mental health condition, they face a significant amount of stress. That stress can hinder their healing. Animals bring comfort to people, and spending time with animals can make healing faster and easier.

Animal-assisted therapy allows a trained service or therapy animal to come to an appointment or visit someone in the hospital. The animal will come with the owner or handler who is knowledgeable about working with service animals. The animal will spend a set amount of time with a patient (usually around 15 minutes), who gets to pet the animal and ask the owner questions. The presence of the animal provides a needed distraction and helps reduce stress for the patient, and this can speed up healing.

Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy has proven benefits based on modern scientific research. Researchers have found a direct connection between interacting with animals and enjoying positive health benefits. These animal therapy benefits include mental health, physical health and skill improvement.

1.          Mental Health

If you have ever spent time petting a cuddly dog or cat and felt an immediate emotional boost, then you have experienced one of the mental health benefits of animal therapy. For most people, the presence of an animal prompts the body to release serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. These hormones generate a relaxation and stress-reducing response, according to UCLA Health. This hormone release can lower symptoms of depression and sadness, helping support good mental health.

Releasing these “happy hormones” also helps lower anxiety, so people will relax during their treatment or therapy. They also experience less loneliness while in the hospital. The presence of an animal provides comfort and a needed distraction from an otherwise challenging time.

Some patients have mental health blocks that make therapy and treatment more difficult. Bringing in an animal can “break the ice” between a therapist and patient, and this can reduce that initial resistance to therapy. This reduction in resistance to therapy can increase the effectiveness of these programs.

Finally, in patients with dementia who are struggling with agitation, working with therapy dogs helps lessen those negative behaviors. Since more than 90 percent of people who are institutionalized due to dementia-related problems have agitation, this is a significant benefit for the patient as well as for the staff of nursing homes and memory care settings.

2.        Physical Health

While the mental health benefits of interacting with animals are well-known, many people are surprised to note that animal therapy positively impacts physical health. It can speed healing and reduce the effects of some health conditions. Here is a closer look at the research.

In a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Critical Care, researchers found that visits with therapy dogs improved cardiovascular health in heart patients, precipitating lowered blood pressure and lowered stress hormone levels. The American Heart Association has found that working with therapy animals improves the health of heart failure patients in the hospital.

Regular visits with therapy animals can reduce the amount of medication some people need to manage medical conditions. Anxious patients experience slowed breathing, and interaction with welcoming animals actually boosts the immune system as well. Some researchers have found an increase in salivatory immunoglobulin A, which indicates a healthy immune system function, after people spend time petting a dog for less than 20 minutes. The release of oxytocin impacts the immune system and increases the pain threshold, helping people heal more quickly.

3.        Skills Improvement

A third benefit of animal-assisted therapy is improved skills in therapies of all types. In physical therapy that requires exercise that is sometimes uncomfortable, participants find themselves more motivated to participate in therapy after interacting with a pet. The increased pain threshold that comes with the oxytocin release can also motivate people to push harder in their therapy programs.

Children with neurological differences, such as autism, often perform better in their language and social therapies when they have an animal to interact with. The presence of an animal can create spontaneous communication in situations where a child might otherwise choose not to communicate. They often relate better to animals than humans, and therapists can incorporate the animal into the therapy session to improve communication and engagement. For children with anxiety and hyperactivity disorders, the animal can help calm or focus the child, so they will work hard in therapy sessions.

Are There Risks with Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Any time animals and humans interact, there are risks. Many animals have germs that can make vulnerable people sick, and any animal, no matter how well trained, can be unpredictable. However, these types of risks are minimized when working with trained service animals.

That said, there are a few risks associated with animal-assisted therapy, and people interested in this line of work should understand these risks so they can reduce the danger to their pets and the patients they serve. One risk is the danger of poor sanitation, which can be an issue in hospitals. To combat this potential problem, hospitals and institutions have strict protocols to ensure their patients are not put at undue risk due to the presence of therapy animals.

Another potential risk is the risk of an animal hurting a patient, such as if a dog gets scared and bites a patient. While you cannot eliminate this risk completely, in reality, the training these animals receive and the skill of therapy animal handlers make this a small risk. The benefits of improved healing and mental health far outweigh this small risk.

Where Is Animal-Assisted Therapy Offered?

You can find animal-assisted therapy in most major hospitals. The Mayo Clinic has the Caring Canines program, for example, that allows therapy dogs to make visits to various hospital departments. Patients can request a therapy dog visit when they need a little stress reduction during their hospital stay. As more and more medical providers recognize the animal assisted therapy benefits listed above, more facilities are implementing programs.

You can also find animal-assisted therapy in therapists’ offices and psychology treatment centers. Many therapists will bring in animals to help their patients or clients feel more comfortable and working with an animal can make patients open up more about their emotional needs.

Rehabilitation centers may partner with therapy animals and their handlers to help patients achieve faster rehab and get home more quickly. The presence of therapy animals motivates patients to work harder in their rehab activities, whether that is counseling-related or physical therapy.

Therapy animals are also showing up in schools, especially schools that work with special-needs students. Teachers and therapists find that students make greater gains when working with animals. Bringing trained service animals into these programs and schools can help these students achieve greater social and academic performance, so this practice is becoming more common.

What Training Is Needed to Work in Animal Assisted Therapy?

Does working with animals to help people feel their best sound like a great career path? If so, then consider earning an Animal-Assisted Therapy Certificate. Husson University offers a certificate program that will teach you the rules and regulations that apply to using therapy animals while also teaching you some of the training techniques you will need to make your pet an effective service animal. This program doesn’t just focus on dogs but looks at all types of human-animal interactions and the resulting therapies. After earning a certificate, trainers will understand how to lessen potential risks associated with service animals. Finally, it focuses on the legal and ethical aspects of using animals to support people in this way.

If you are interested in becoming an animal-assisted therapy provider, learn more about the certificate program from Husson UniversityApply to the program today or reach out to an admissions counselor to learn more.

 

Sources

https://aacnjournals.org/ajcconline/article-abstract/16/6/575/622/Animal-Assisted-Therapy-in-Patients-Hospitalized?redirectedFrom=fulltext

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15762389/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7534124/

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/pet-therapy/art-20046342

https://www.uclahealth.org/pac/Workfiles/PAC/DementiaAndAAT_Richeson.pdf

https://www.uclahealth.org/pac/Workfiles/volunteering/PACArticle.pdf

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