What are the benefits of animal therapy?

A young patient interacts with a therapy dog in the hospital

Why do you feel better when greeted by your excited dog, or when your cat brushes up on your leg to say hello? Why are pet shop windows always busy with people looking at the puppies and kittens? The easy answer is: it feels good because animals make us happy.  This is not just because animals are cute. It’s been scientifically proven that being around animals reduces stress and anxiety. Even patting a dog has been found to improve moods. It makes sense that animal therapy has great benefits for mental health, physical health and general wellbeing.

What is animal therapy?

Animal therapy uses animals to help in a patient’s treatment process. Different animals are trained to do this: horses, dogs, cats, pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, dolphins, cows, ferrets, and birds. Therapists use them to help a patient work through emotional and behavioural challenges. Distressed patients feel especially safe with animals because these gentle creatures provide a non-judgmental and unbiased environment. Many aged care facilities, child care centres, schools, hospitals and work places now encourage animals and pets into their environments to reduce stress and improve wellbeing.

How does animal therapy work?

The main goal of therapy sessions with animals is to foster emotional regulation. Horses and dogs, in particular, are very good at mirroring human attitudes and behaviours. The more time a patient spends doing animal-assisted therapy, the safer they feel about opening up. 

It also increases the level of focus on the present moment. Interacting with animals involves all the senses. A patient has no choice but to put all their focus into what they need to do with their therapy animal. As they do this, they shift their attention from what is causing anxiety to the task at hand, which is to interact with their animal. 

Which conditions can benefit?

Animal therapy can help treat physical and psychological illnesses. But the strongest evidence, thus far, are the benefits of animal therapy for mental health and general wellbeing. 

Adolescents who suffer from chronic isolation, anxiety, and depression gain much from interacting with therapy dogs and therapy horses. This includes developing better social or behavioural skills, as well as an increased motivation towards activities or interaction with others.

Animal therapy can also help ease symptoms of chronic pain, dementia, autism, spectrum disorders, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), drug use disorder, and schizophrenia. It’s important to find the right program for your needs.

What are the most common animals used?

There are many types of animal therapy. Equine therapy, as the name suggests, uses horses. Patients have to groom, feed, and sometimes lead their therapy horses  around by the reins. By doing these tasks, patients can develop life skills, such as confidence, trust, and communication. Also, they learn to moderate their impulses, develop accountability and responsibility, and enhance their problem-solving skills. All from caring for a trained therapy horse. 

Therapy dogs, or emotional support dogs, are often used to help patients deal with the effects of trauma and PTSD. In the aftermath of school shootings in the U.S., therapy dogs were flown in to help survivors emotionally heal. War veterans have also benefited from interacting with therapy canines, to reduce stress and anxiety. Those with autism and disabilities can benefit greatly from working with a therapy dog to improve movement and motor skills.

The most common kind of animal therapy, though, is owning pets. Research says stroking a pet’s fur has been found to lower blood pressure by 10 percent by releasing the “happy hormones,” serotonin and oxytocin, while lowering the stress hormone cortisol. This is proof that when you’ve had a stressful day at work, coming home to cuddle your pet is the best natural therapy.

Pets are great. But if you’re looking for a more structured program, with the right guidance, animal therapy can benefit physical issues and ease stress, anxiety and improve mental health. The animals are here to help. Let them. Animal Therapies Australia is a good place to start your search for the right therapist and program. 

Visit Everything Alternative to learn more about natural therapies and alternative health.