If you've ever come home after a rough day to have your dog greet you enthusiastically, you've experienced the emotional and therapeutic benefit of animals firsthand. We know how our pets help us get through life. Whether trained or not, owning and caring for pets provides a certain amount of therapy and proven health benefits.
And society is catching on to that. Today, therapy animals serve in many different environments, and they offer humans different types of benefits. Whether they're calming an anxious child or providing reassurance to complete strangers during times of stress, therapy animals are already changing many people's lives.
How therapy animals are used
Most therapy animals are used for similar reasons. In hospitals, they provide comfort, cheer, and companionship. Service animals take specific and necessary actions in the event of a medical emergency, or in counseling to provide comfort and relaxation.
Animals can help children with learning disabilities as well as with anger management, mental health, and behavioral difficulties. There are even programs in place that use dogs to help children learn how to read. Animals are also commonly used in physical therapy to help with fine motor skills. Actions such as brushing, fastening a collar, and walking are where pet therapy can help.
There has also been an increase in therapy animals in courtrooms. For court cases that require a victim to testify in court and come face-to-face with their perpetrator, or discuss a difficult event, therapy animals are being used to help victims talk about their trauma and aid with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes and we've all seen them at work. Whether at the mall, the grocery store, or walking down the street, therapy dogs are working for their owners.
While the initial reaction for most is to approach a service dog, these dogs are at work. Some wear "I'm friendly! Ask if you can pet me!" patches, in which case you can ask the handler if it's okay to interact with the working pooch.
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Meet Basil, our newest animal-assisted therapy team volunteer! She and her human, Tina, will be visiting patients and families at OHSU and @OHSUDoernbecher every other Saturday. Head to our Stories to see some moments from Basil’s first day on campus (including her badge photo shoot, pictured here!) 😻 #OHSU #TherapyCat #OHSUVolunteers
Cats have been used for therapy as well, for individuals that may be intimidated or afraid of dogs. The difficulty with cats as therapy animals is that they aren't as easily transported as dogs, and aren't usually trained as service animals as they often aren't large enough to perform tasks in the event of a medical emergency.
They are common in nursing homes as they weave in and out of rooms, checking in on all the patients, pausing to snooze and snuggle. They also aid elderly suffering from dementia.
There is also a famous case of a Maine Coon helping a girl with Autism speak again.
Equine therapy is popular among individuals with a multitude of behaviors. Caring for a large animal requires your full attention, and offers a break from whatever disruptive thoughts or behaviors are taking place (anger, abuse, learning disabilities, etc.).
Learning the skills necessary to care for a horse helps promote confidence and eases anxiety and impatience. Teaching an individual how to trust and interact with a horse has shown immense benefits for all parties involved. Equine-assisted therapy is scientifically proven to lower blood pressure and their calm nature helps enhance social skills. Therapeutic riding also aids in anger management and behavioral problems. If the rider isn't respecting the horse, then the horse won't respect the rider.
Other small animals have been used as a more convenient form of therapy. Animals such as guinea pigs and rabbits offer the same assistance with comfort and companionship, fine motor skills, and emotional/behavioral benefits as their canine co-workers.
Smaller pets have the benefit of being easy to contain and care for, for those individuals who may not be able to care for a dog or cat.
While new to the therapy animal occupation, reptiles have been used in London to help individuals struggling with depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse.
Caring for a reptile takes a great deal of concentration and offers individuals a reprieve from their emotional, mental, or physical struggles. Caring for reptiles, because it is uncommon, also gives individuals a surge of confidence and an area in which they can succeed.
Parrots specifically have been known to have a high level of empathy, making them great candidates for emotional support animals. Parrots can be taught words and phrases, which can help individuals and their animals work together during certain psychological episodes.
There have also been cases of veterans suffering from PTSD who worked with abused birds in a sanctuary to help ease their symptoms and provide care for birds that were in need.
Anyone who has owned any type of animal has seen first-hand the compassion and benefits animals provide. Whether certified or trained for therapy sessions or simply a companion, the benefits of an animal in any capacity is undeniable.
The words "Who Saved Who" ring particularly true to those of us in need of therapy, regardless of the capacity. Animals have a way of providing us with the care we need, with devout loyalty and unencumbered by judgment.
Additional information and resources on service and animal therapy can be found here:
Tell us your experience working with therapy or service animals in the comments below!
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