What is pet therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy, or pet therapy as it is sometimes known, is an alternative or complementary therapy. Almost any animal can potentially be used, although it is most common to use dogs, cats and horses.

Visit a hostel or hospital these days, and you may be surprised to meet a dog. Surprised, because the general perception is that hospitals and hostels need to be clean, sterile places. Much as we love them, dogs are very definitely not sterile.

However, there is growing recognition that animal-assisted therapy has a place in modern medicine. More, there is a real understanding that access to animals can provide benefits that few other forms of therapy can match.

How Animal-Assisted Therapy Works

The use of dogs and other animals to provide therapy is distinct from assistance dogs like guide dogs, or from medical detection dogs. For a start, it is mostly voluntary, with owners heavily involved, and secondly, the pets usually receive no specific training. There is, therefore, a question of how much benefit is from what they ‘do’ or whether it is simply that they ‘are’.

Pet therapy can be as simple as having a dog visiting someone in hospital or in a nursing home. Just having animals around can help people to feel more ‘normal’, which is import people staying for long periods in hospital, especially children.

The charity Pets as Therapy is one of the main organisers of this type of therapy in the UK. It uses volunteer pets—or rather, volunteer owners and their pets—and organises their visits to institutions that request it. Anyone with a pet can volunteer. The charity states that pets must be over 9 months old, and have been living with their owner for at least 6 months. The charity will check the pet to see if its temperament is suitable.

Once approved, the volunteer pet and owner will go into hospitals, hostels, nursing homes, schools and other settings to meet children and adults who would benefit from this kind of interaction. There are no requirements on the level of commitment: volunteers choose how often they want to visit, and the only stipulation is that the pet is not ‘overworked’. Sessions must last no more than 2 hours, and the animal must be given regular breaks.

Is Pet Therapy Effective?

A number of studies on animal-assisted therapy have shown that it has a very definite effect on mood, and can also help to decrease anxiety and pain. Some studies have shown that animal-assisted therapy has positive effects on objective measures such as blood pressure. Contact with dogs has been reported to decrease pain and increase comfort in paediatric palliative care.

Animals are also a useful distraction technique, especially for children. For older people, including those living in the community, having visits from therapy pets reduces loneliness and provides company. There are plenty of claims that animal-assisted therapy may be helpful in treating a variety of specific conditions, from ADHD to dementia.

However, the evidence for this is fairly limited. It seems wisest to simply say that we know that contact with dogs and other animals helps people to feel better, and may also have behavioural effects. Beyond that, it is hard to say whether there is any proof of benefit for particular conditions.

There are other more directed ways in which pets can be used, particularly in paediatric healthcare. Children will often talk to a dog in a way that they would not talk to a person, and therapists sometimes use animals for what is known as ‘indirect interviewing’. This technique is also sometimes used in schools for children who struggle to read or talk. Again, Pets as Therapy is the leading organiser of this in the UK, with its read2dogs scheme.

A Special Bond

As humans, we have been close to animals for many thousands of years. Dogs, horses, and cats, in particular, have been domesticated for a very long time, and it seems reasonable to assume that close bonds have developed between our species. Indeed, some people have speculated that one of the reasons why pet therapy is effective is that one of the early uses of dogs was to warn us of danger. Calm dogs, therefore, make us calm too. Whatever the reason, there is little doubt that using pets as therapy is helpful in a range of circumstances. It is good to see that more and more settings are recognising the benefit that animals can provide.

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