Animal Therapy or Animal Assisted Therapy or Pet Therapy utilizes the services of trained animal handlers to help patients achieve specific social, cognitive, physical or emotional goals.
Animals as loyal, faithful and lovable companions date back to prehistoric times. But the ‘therapeutic’ use of animals dates back to the ninth century when pets were used to cure patients in Belgium. There, people with disabilities were taught to take care of animals as a part of their assisted living program. In the United States, psychiatric patients were often helped by using animal therapy.
It was seen that the presence of therapy animals had a beneficial effect on people and children with mental problems or disorders. This led researchers to study the usefulness of animal assistance as a part of active therapy. In recent years Animal Therapy has been formally applied to various healing practices taking place in schools, prisons, hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and outpatient care programs.
Research has proved the beneficial effects of animal therapy. Physical contact with a pet helps lower blood pressure and even improves survival rates for victims of heart attack. The reason could be that petting an animal helps release endorphins or the feel-good hormones. Endorphins are chemical substances that also suppress the pain response of the body.
Patients can learn or improve many skills with the help of Animal Therapy. Activities like walking or running with a dog, or throwing things for an animal to retrieve encourages patient rehabilitation. Grooming, petting and feeding the animal also help to develop motor skills.
Since man has always been enamored by animals and has had a wonderful fascination for them, he is keen to develop his bond with the animal. Responding to the animal or commanding it improves patient communication. Writing or talking about the animals (as proud owners are wont to do) develops cognitive skills and communication.
Animal therapy works because the creative inclusion of an animal in therapy makes a major difference in the comfort level and progress of a patient’s recovery system.
Specific procedures in Animal therapy are undertaken according to the needs of the patient. As dogs are man’s best friends, they are naturally the most common visiting therapy animals. Cats, horses, birds and other domestic pets can also be used – if they are appropriately trained.
If the patient is bedridden, a small animal can be brought to the bed. A simple therapy session may include a demonstration with educational content that aims at engaging the patient cognitively. If the patient can move about, the options are more. He can learn to take care of farm animals, walk animals outside or simply teach animals to obey. Horseback riding is an activity that is gaining popularity. It offers an opportunity to develop the skills of balance, trunk control and other skills.
The emotional ‘high’ that many patients feel when they interact with an animal – especially a big animal, like a horse – is itself immensely therapeutic. By putting enthusiasm and willingness back into the heart, the patient derives enough motivation to carry on with therapy.
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