This form of therapy brings a trained pet usually a dog into therapy sessions. For some institutions, patients get regular visits from therapy pets, accompanied by their handlers. This form of therapy was mainly sparked by a study conducted by Friedman and colleagues in 1980. They observed that the survival rate for recovering from a heart attack was longer for pet owners compared to non-owners (1). This led therapists to consider including special trained pets into their treatment sessions. Today, pet therapy is most often incorporated in the treatment and rehabilitation of people with mental disorders. Allowing patients to interact with therapy pets means that “the notion of giving care rather than receiving it allows them to feel empathy, a key component in coping with mental illness” (2)
Theorists propose that dogs help reduce the anxiety levels in schizophrenic and bipolar patients, making treatment, communication and interaction with the therapist more tranquil and less tense. This makes it easy for people diagnosed with schizophrenia to communicate better and actively engage in social activities (3). Sandra Baker, a professor of psychiatry and director of ‘The School of Medicine Centre for Human-Animal Interaction’ at Virginia Commonwealth University, argues that spending 5 minutes with a dog is comparable to 20 minutes of rest. She further maintains that spending 15 minutes with a dog lessens fear by 20% among mentally ill patients (4).
The positive effect of pet therapy is further facilitated by the fact that animal companions appears to reduce our stress levels and anxiety arising from hectic, demanding and sometimes traumatic life events.
The benefits of pet therapy also appear to have an effect on the rate at which people heal and people are rehabilitated. Research on how recently released psychiatric patients cope found that those living in adult homes receiving puppy visits were more socially adjusted, less depressed, had better mental function and were more satisfied with life compared to patients living in adult homes with no puppy visits (5).
There are however, studies that have failed to find any the positive relationship for human-animal companionship. In 2003, Parslow and Jorm conducted a study in which pet ownership was found to have zero effect on the number of times people seek health services (6). Other theorists have however challenged such findings by proposing that confounding variables such as social status may have biased the results.
The research done so far appears to suggest that pet ownership, having pets included in treatment or simply having occasional visits from therapy pets has significant positive effects on a patient’s well-being. This is why several charities and volunteer organizations have been established to help provide therapy cats and dogs together with their handlers to different therapeutic units such as hospitals, psychiatric clinics, nursing homes etc. In the UK, the ‘Pets As Therapy’ organization serves this purpose.
Although the focus has been on dogs and cats, it has been suggested that all pet companions have similar calming effects. Thus, whether it’s a small gold fish, a parrot or for some even a snake, pet companions bring tranquillity to their life. Sometimes it is enough to feel relaxed from simply having a meal in front of an aquarium. This is because pets, unlike humans, ‘don’t give to get back’: they provide unconditional love, social support and companionship, asking “nothing in return except an occasional scratch behind the ears” (7)
(1). Baker, B. S., & Dawson, K. S. (1998). The effects of animal-assisted therapy on anxiety ratings of hospitalized psychiatric patients. Psychiatric services, 49, 797-801.
(2) The centre for Reintegration. (2003). Alternative Therapy Unleashed. Retrieved 2009-07-28 from: http://www.reintegration.com/professional/standard/petherapy.asp
(3). Baker, B. S., & Wolen, A. R. (2008). The benefits of human-companion animal interaction: A review. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 35, 487-495
(4) The centre for Reintegration. (2003). Alternative Therapy Unleashed. Retrieved 2009-07-28 from: http://www.reintegration.com/professional/standard/petherapy.asp
(5). Baker, B. S., & Wolen, A. R. (2008). The benefits of human-companion animal interaction: A review. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 35, Pp 489
(6) The centre for Reintegration. (2003). Alternative Therapy Unleashed. Retrieved 2009-07-28 from: http://www.reintegration.com/professional/standard/petherapy.asp
(7) The centre for Reintegration. (2003). Alternative Therapy Unleashed. Retrieved 2009-07-28 from: http://www.reintegration.com/professional/standard/petherapy.asp