More Than Best Friends
After the shooting at the Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016, a local Lutheran church which has an outreach program with the LGBT community joined forces with other churches and organizations around the country to invite 12 comfort dogs to come to Orlando. These wonderful dogs were brought to work with injured victims and their relatives, the family members and friends of those who lost their lives, and the emergency workers in attendance. They helped provide temporary calm and consolation to those in need during a traumatic week. It was heart-warming to see them at work, to watch their interaction with so many people in need of healing. Many people would just start crying as they petted the dogs. Comfort dogs (and animals in general) have the capacity to pick up the emotions of those who pet them, and are great listeners who don’t judge and offer unconditional love. They also help make it safe for people in pain to drop their guard and express their feelings.
Humans and animals have always shared a strong bond. Anyone who has a connection with their animal companions understands how rewarding it is. This bond has often been a source of solace and relief for those who suffer from physical or emotional pain. But a growing body of scientific research is showing that our pets can also help make us healthy, or healthier. That helps explain why Pet Therapy (which includes Animal-Assisted Therapy or AAT, and other Animal-Assisted activities) is a growing field, having gained a lot of popularity over the last few years. There has been an increasing use of animals (mostly dogs and cats; but also horses, birds and fish) in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, jails and mental institutions.
According to Aubrey Fine, a clinical psychologist and professor at California State Polytechnic University, the use of pets in medical settings dates back more than 150 years. But it was only in the late 1970s that researchers started to discover the science behind it, and a great number of studies have been published since.
For years, animals have been used with great benefit in the treatment of the elderly and the terminally ill. Animal-Assisted Therapy has also been shown to help children who have experienced abuse or neglect, as well as patients undergoing chemotherapy or other difficult medical treatments. These days, AAT is also helping sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The use of pets for assisting veterans and their families who are struggling to cope with the effects of wartime military service is becoming more common, due to the many success stories of pets helping PTSD patients greatly reduce their symptoms. Studies reveal a high success rate with the use of dogs, cats, birds, horses and even dolphins in PTSD treatment. According to an Elements Behavioral Health’s blog article (Animal Therapy Is Making Strides In The Treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), “in one study of the effect of dogs with patients, psychologists noted an 82% reduction in symptoms. One particular case noted that interacting with the dog for as little as one week, enabled a patient to decrease the amount of anxiety and sleep medications by half.” The studies have been so encouraging that the Department of Defense is investing close to $300,000 in this type of treatment.
Pet Therapy can also help patients with OCD and other psychiatric conditions. Here’s a touching video from America's Got Talent featuring a contestant with a disabling form of OCD who says that his dog has changed his life. They obviously share a strong connection, which anyone can notice when they perform together:
America's Got Talent 2016 Patrick & Ginger The Most Talented Dog in the World
Some of the many reasons why Pet Therapy works:
1) Animal companions require care and attention, which keeps the patients busy, active and distracted from their health challenges. They also reinforce rehabilitation behavior in patients (for instance, by getting them to walk or throw a ball).
2) Animal companions offer unconditional love, which is the most healing feeling anyone can receive.
3) Animal companions inspire altruistic love. By doing something for another being, a person can reduce depression. Loving others is a depression antidote.
4) Animal companions are wonderfully accepting creatures. As I mentioned above, they make great non-judgmental listeners, providing a safe space for emotions to be expressed.
5) Animal companions lower blood pressure, relieve stress, reduce anxiety, boost the immune system and more. Countless studies show the health benefits of riding a horse, playing with a dog or a cat, etc.
In short, Pet Therapy can promote healing of mind, body and spirit in many children, adults and seniors suffering from countless different issues. And one of the best things about therapy that involves animal companions is that it goes both ways. Animals also benefit from their special bond with their human companions and can find healing along with their caretakers; especially animals commissioned from shelters, who often have a history of abuse and neglect. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.
© Gisele Marasca-Vargas; 06/29/2016
NOTE: This blog article was published on the September 2016 issues of Natural Awakenings - Central Florida/Orlando Edition (link below)
Natural Awakenings CF - September 2016
Article: Animal Companions - Pet Therapy Offers Many Benefits; pgs. 32-33
Photo by Cindy Makonin on Unsplash
In A Shaken Orlando, Comfort Dogs Arrive With “Unconditional Love”
Pet Therapy: Man’s Best Friend As Healer
The Pet Effect on Mental Health Conditions (Stress, Anxiety, Depression, PTSD, Trauma) - HABRI - Human Animal Bond Research Institute
Pet Therapy: How Animals And Humans Help Each Other