We can all attest to the mood lifting and stress relieving benefits of having a pet around. We can’t help to smile when our dog cuddles up to us or our cats crawl into our lap. There are proven physical and mental health benefits to owning a pet and being around animals. Therapy animals are a way for people in lonely, stressful, or traumatic situations that might not be able to own pets to share in the health benefits. Therapy animals, often dogs, are used in retirement and nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, for veterans, and people with disorders or disabilities. Some people even have therapy pets, specifically for the health benefits that animal companionship provides.
Therapy pets are different from service animals. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, in the United States, “A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” This includes tasks like pulling a wheelchair or reminding a person to take medication. For more information about service dogs and how they differ from emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs, check out the ADA’s guide to Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.
The Physical Benefits of Therapy Dogs and Cats
- lowers blood pressure.
- improves cardiovascular health.
- releases calming endorphins (oxytocin).
- lowers overall physical pain.
- the act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response, which is believed to reduce the amount of medication needed by some people.
- lifts spirits and lessens depression.
- lowers feelings of isolation and alienation.
- encourages communication.
- provides comfort.
- increases socialization.
- lessens boredom.
- reduces anxiety.
- aids children in overcome speech and emotional disorders.
- creates motivation for the client to recover faster.
- reduces loneliness.
Uses of Therapy Animals
Pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy is becoming a common way for health professionals to improve patient’s social, emotional, and mental functioning with the support of animals. These therapy animals range from cats and dogs to horses and dolphins.
Many colleges and universities bring therapy dogs to campus, often around mid-terms or finals, to help students relax and destress. Students say that interacting with these animals can be very mood lifting, especially if they have family pets they don’t often get to see.
Many hospitals have formal or information programs to bring animals in for patients. Cedars-Sinai has a program called POOCH, where volunteer dogs visit patients that have requested a visit.
After a Disaster
Some organizations work both locally and nationally to send therapy animals to tragically affected areas. These therapeutic animals help people recover from physical ailments and emotional trauma.
Want Your Pet to Become a Therapy Animal?
Your pet can become certified through organizations like Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International. While Pet Partners’ team of therapy animals is 94% dogs, they register eight other species too (including cats, guinea pigs, llamas, pigs, and rats).
While it might sound like a fun and fulfilling activity for you and your pet, there are many qualifications that have to be met. Being well-behaved and well-trained is a must for your pet, and they must enjoy and voluntarily approach strangers.
Animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell notes that although “a therapy [animal] must be able to tolerate all manner of rudeness, it’s your job to eliminate as much stress as you possibly can … as the human half of the team, you play several roles, and one of them is to be your [pet’s] advocate.” You must be able to read your pet’s body language at all times to access their mood and intervene as you can.
Therapy work can be stressful for many animals, but if you believe that your pet has the right temperament and would enjoy the work, look for a local or online class about volunteering for animal therapy.