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Pet therapy is beneficial for mental health patients

Posted on: June 11th, 2015 in Mental Health No Comments


Pet therapy entails a guided interaction between a trained animal and an individual. The purpose of this type of therapy is to aid the patient while he or she is recovering from or coping with a major health problem or a mental health disorder. Another term for this form of therapy is animal-assisted therapy (AAT). The most commonly used animals in pet therapy are typically cats and dogs. The type of animal used for therapy is chosen based on the psychological and therapeutic needs of the patient as well as their mental health treatment plan.

What is pet therapy used for?

Pet therapy is used to help build a bond between the patient and the animal. According the Veterinary Medical Association, pet therapy can help patients progress toward goals that deal with social, emotional, physical and cognitive functions. When going into pet therapy, it’s important to have a defined list of objectives. A patient’s progress throughout the series of therapy sessions will be recorded to monitor his or her response to the treatment.

The goals of pet therapy include:

  • Increasing self-esteem
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Improving interpersonal communication
  • Motivating patients to exercise
  • Lessening feelings of loneliness
  • Improving coping skills
  • Increasing verbal communication
  • Increasing willingness to socialize

Who can benefit from pet therapy?

Pet therapy can be highly beneficial in a variety of cases. This type of therapy is commonly used for treating patients who are struggling with severe mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Pet therapy is offered to patients who are in long-term and short-term care facilities. This method of treatment has also proven to be helpful in improving coping skills for patients undergoing cancer treatments and children who have undergone serious medical procedures.

What steps does pet therapy entail?

The first step of this process is picking the right animal to use during therapy sessions. Once the animal and their handler are matched up, the animal is designated for therapy based on the patient’s needs. An initial physical examination of the therapy pet will ensure that the animal is immunized and free of disease. The pet is then taken through an obedience training course to make the animal manageable for the patient to handle, guaranteeing the safety of both the pet and the patient. During the therapy, both the behavior of the patient and the pet will be monitored and evaluated.

What are some benefits of pet therapy?

Patients can reap several benefits from pet therapy and in the process improve their mental and physical health. It can serve as an effective treatment for alleviating levels of stress, decreasing the need for psychiatric medications and diminishing symptoms of mental illnesses. The natural human-animal bond can be very therapeutic and helpful when it comes to coping with tragic circumstances in a positive manner. The relief patients experience is due to the physiological and psychological effects that can take place when learning how to properly communicate and nurture for an animal.

Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia conducted research on pet and animal assisted therapy. Their research suggests that the hormonal changes that take place when a patient and a dog interact can help people better cope with depression and other stress related mental illnesses. Results showed that just a few minutes of petting triggered a release of “feel good” hormones like serotonin, oxytocin and prolactin. This action also prompted a decrease in the main “stress” hormone, cortisol.

A different form of pet therapy: Equine therapy

One other form of animal-assisted therapy called equine therapy. This form of therapy utilizes therapy horses as a means of helping individuals gain better self-understanding while promoting emotional development. Horses are very intuitive animals that can reciprocate the emotions that they feel from the patients. This connection provides a basis for emotional healing as the patient learns how to interact with the animal and direct them throughout the therapy sessions.

During these sessions, the therapist and the client will engage in personal conversations in which the patient’s feelings and behavioral patterns are assessed and evaluated. Patients are also directed by the therapist on how to interact with the animal, which will be monitored. These sessions can help clients to clients to build skills in assertiveness, self-esteem, patience and non-verbal communication.

Sovereign Health Group is among the leading mental health treatment providers in the country. We offer various inpatient and outpatient treatment options, which can include the use of equine therapy, for patients who are struggling with mental health disorders. If you know someone who is struggling with a severe mental illness and is in need of treatment, please do not hesitate to call. Our phone lines are open 24/7 and one of our treatment specialists will assist you in finding the right treatment option for you.

Written by Benjamin Creekmore, Sovereign Health Group writer

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