Animal therapy is gaining in popularity and use in the health care field. It’s no surprise to pet owners that pets bring us joy and unconditional love. Research is showing there are also health benefits to owning or interacting with animals. Studies show that having a pet can lower the stress hormone, cortisol, while increasing oxytocin, prolactin and norepinephrine, hormones related to joy, nurturing and even relaxation.
Animal or pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. It involves the interaction between a person and an animal with the goal of improving a health issue while enhancing one’s wellbeing. Animal therapy can take place in a lot of different settings and involve the use of many different animals. In health care, this type of complementary therapy usually involves measurable goals and planned strategies for achieving them. Animal therapy includes more than just spending time with an animal; it can include walking, brushing, petting and caring for an animal, as well as the overall experience of performing a specific task.
Let’s take a look at how specific animals are improving our lives.
Canine-Assisted Therapy is a very popular choice in animal therapy. Most of us are familiar with the use of service dogs; guiding people who are visually impaired, alerting those with hearing impairments as well as helping those with other physical disabilities by retrieving items, opening doors and other daily tasks. Dogs are easy companions because they can be pets and can live in the home as opposed larger or aquatic animals.
Interaction with dogs has been proven to reduce blood pressure and create other calming effects to help people with anxiety disorders. These furry creatures can also reduce isolation, particularly beneficial to seniors and people with disabilities by helping them with socialization. Having a companion around that provides unconditional love and affection can be a wonderful thing. Dogs can be a source of comfort, they teach us how to care for another living thing and help us feel needed and important. Dogs can be the perfect companions because they are nonjudgmental which helps establish trust.
Horse therapy (also known as Equine-Assisted, Equestrian Therapy or Hippotherapy) is also an emerging therapy for people with disabilities. Riding horses can help with things such as impairment to muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination and motor development. Like dogs, horses have been proven to help with emotional wellbeing. According to the American Hippotherapy Association “research has proven that the multidimensional movements of the horse provide a disabled rider with the opportunity to explore, control and coordinate posture and movement”.
There are real psychological benefits to horse therapy via the interaction with nature and the animal itself, plus the confidence and self-esteem created when a person gains control over their body as well as the horse. The setting can also build certain skills and be therapeutic as well. For people who ride and those who don’t, caring for a horse can also be therapeutic, whether spending time with the animal, brushing their mane or just observing them in their element. In fact, many places that offer horse therapy put as much effort into the setting as well as the actual riding.
Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) has been around since the late 1970’s and has primarily been used to improve speech and motor skills, and increase attention spans in children with developmental disabilities. This therapy has had some controversy over the years as there really is no scientific data to back up why it works. Some people believe it is used mainly as a motivational tool. An individual that completes their goal is rewarded with a swim, feeding or other interaction with the dolphins, for example. Others believe the science involves has to do with the dolphins’ sonar capabilities being able to repair damaged cells, increase T-cells and boost endorphins. Whether the evidence is based on experience or research, many people have had positive effects as a result of this type of therapy.
If you’re interested in learning more about animal-assisted therapies, here is a list of websites that can provide information:
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