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Pet Therapy – Gaining Popularity in Healthcare and Beyond

Pet therapy is gaining popularity for all the right reasons.  This type of therapy is divided into two categories — animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy.

Both of these types therapy can have psycho-social and physical benefits.how does pet therapy work

Pet Therapy

Pet therapy is becoming a common way for healthcare professionals to improve a patient’s emotional, mental, and social functioning with the support of animals. These therapy animals range from dogs and cats — to dolphins and horses.

Therapy pets are different from service animals.  In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as follows.

“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 type of benefit includes tasks like pulling a wheelchair or reminding a person to take medication. The U.S. Department of Justice provides some guidance on the term “service animal” and the service animal provisions published in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In essence, service animals differ from therapy dogs, comfort animals, and emotional support animals.

How Does Pet Therapy Work?

Animals are brought into a therapeutic setting, such as a hospital, community programs, university, school, or a recent disaster area.

After a disaster, some organizations work both nationally and locally to send therapy animals to tragically affected areas. The therapeutic animals help people recover from emotional trauma and physical ailments.

More often, around mid-terms or finals, many universities and colleges bring therapy dogs to their campus to help students relax and reduce a student’s stress. Students say that interacting with these animals can be especially mood lifting – even more so if they have family pets they don’t often get to see.

And many hospitals have information or formal programs to bring animals in for patients to offer patients the opportunity to benefit from pet therapy.

The healthcare community is finding that animals help people recover from — or better cope with — health problems, such as mental health disorders, cancer, and heart disease.

The most common form of pet therapy is where people and animals interact with one another.  In most cases, pet therapy includes the presence of a trained volunteer, or therapist who assumes a passive role.

Benefits of Pet Therapy

Pet therapy can help in significantly reducing depression, anxiety, fatigue, and pain in people with a variety of health conditions.

Pet therapy is used to help people recover, or cope with some of following health ailments:

  • Anxiety
  • Dementia
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • People receiving cancer treatment
  • Children having dental procedures
  • People in long-term care facilities
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Pet therapy not only benefits most people with these health problems. Family members and friends who sit in on a pet therapy visit say they feel better, as well.

Additional mental and physical benefits include the following:

  • Reduces pain
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Improves cardiovascular health
  • Lessens depression
  • Lessens boredom
  • Reduces loneliness
  • Provides comfort
  • Encourages communication
  • Increases socialization
  • Lifts spirits

Pet Therapy Risks

Sanitation and safety is the biggest concern — particularly in hospitals. Most hospitals and other facilities that use pet therapy abide by stringent rules to ensure that the animals are vaccinated, clean, well trained and screened for appropriate behavior.

In addition, pet therapy can elevate the risk of zoonotic infections.  Scratches and bites are also an ongoing risk. Animal-assisted therapy may be inadvisable for individuals with a fear of animals, allergies, and a higher risk of zoonotic infections.  Additional considerations to help lessen the risks to people include animal and handler characteristics and training, as well as other factors, such as risk of pathogen shedding.

Pet therapy risks should be minimal if animals are carefully screened for their own health and temperament, impeccably groomed and clean, and tanks and cages are regularly cleaned.

Health professionals and people worldwide find that pet therapy does offer a number of positive improvements.  More and more people exposed to pet therapy are found to have a happier mood, better quality of life, improved family relations, reduced anxiety, something to look forward to, and an added sense of purpose.

About the author: George Zapo, CPH is certified in Public Health Promotion and Education (Kent State University). George focuses on providing informative articles promoting healthy behavior and lifestyles.

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