By Kerry Hudson
We are all familiar with guide dogs, the way they help their owner overcome physical disability is breathtaking, but did you know there is now an acknowledged need for therapy dogs? A therapy dog’s role is to help reduce anxieties and build confidence whilst providing companionship for an owner who is experiencing mental illness or distress.
The comforting benefits of pets for therapy
The needs of different pets will vary, so it is important that we are aware of the commitments they bring, for example some dogs need long walks up to three times a day whilst a goldfish has the more modest needs of a pinch of food and a clean tank.
The simple act of stroking a pet is well known to lower blood pressure, reducing physical as well as emotional stress. Watching fish is known to reduce stress (just think of all the tanks in waiting rooms!) Horse riding, or keeping a goat for example, has the added benefit of fresh air and exercise. Again each animal will require a different level of commitment.
Unlike people, pets won't judge you or your illness. You can even tell them your deepest darkest secret and they will merely expect a tickle for their time.
Pets give us an intensive to remain calm. We need to maintain a positive, calming energy or our pets naturally won't respond to our commands, which in time naturally trains our own brain to let go of negative stress if we want our pets to obey us.
Therapy pets for organisations
Residential services for vulnerable or unwell people often have therapy pets as they have a calming influence on patients. Only the other day I visited my Gran in her nursing home and she had a rabbit snoozing on her lap, rabbits being a popular choice as they are less allergenic than cats or dogs.
The medical benefits of pets for therapy
Medical science investigating the effects of pets on people show that we live longer and healthier lives when living with pets. We have lower cholesterol as well as reduced anxiety and apparently we make fewer trips to our GP and respond better to medical treatment too. One study even showed that breast cancer patients were much more positive because of the support provided by their pet, because pets are unaware of the concept of terminal illness, as we humans are, the relationship between them and their owner remains unaffected.
Which pets make good therapy pets?
Cats and dogs are the obvious choice of family pet or companion, though I do know people with exotic pets such as pet doves and mini alligators. I myself am an avid owner of guinea pigs. I started with two, ended up with sixteen, have found solace in four. Their routine has a calming influence on me as being bipolar my own routine is hectic. Although vet trips can be distressing, and losing one is awful, the positives outweigh the negatives. Waking up to the sound of their greedy squeaking, watching them munch on treats like they've just won the lottery and watching them either bicker or cuddle up together is bliss. Admittedly during periods of OCD I do get neurotic and constantly check on them but times when I get depressed and isolate myself from people their presence can be very comforting so I allow them indoors for company.
As we have mentioned earlier, pets are living animals and need to be kept safe and well looked after, they are a commitment and should be very carefully considered for anyone. However, you may not need to consider owning a pet, rather being involved in a group that organizes therapy pet visits, or you may like to take up horse riding, or volunteer at a rescue centre. You may be able to foster an animal for a short time to see if it is right for you.
Great therapy pets to consider:
- Dogs – The first animal that springs to anyone’s mind when they think of companionship.
- Cats – Cats too make lovable companions
- Rabbits – Less allergenic than cats or dogs and can be housetrained. Also have more modest needs than a dog.
- Fish – Again more modest needs and can be very calming.
Other animal activities as suggested – horseriding, alpaca hiking or keeping goats, can have mental health benefits, but we would not suggest taking on such big new commitments at a time of instability. These pursuits can be very beneficial and your local riding school or sanctuary may very well enjoy a volunteer!
Therapy pets in practice
As natural pack animals dogs are prone to protect and dote on their owners. Maia has recently invited a puppy into her family and says:
“Being an excitable pup, walking him almost always turns into a run”
Taking a dog for a walk not only means we get the exercise we need to keep our heart pumping and the weight down, but the fresh air circulating parks is heaps better for us than street fumes and noise pollution. It's also a great way of meeting other people, especially for those with social anxiety because there is a ready-made topic of conversation.
They can unbelievably serve as anti-depressants too, in that spending quality time with them often increase the release of endorphins and other pleasure enduing hormones.
Chris suffers from depression and anxiety. He has found that cats provide the therapeutic quality he finds useful. He says
“My anxiety has definitely improved since having a pet and find it very comforting having some company around which isn't human, which is what I need at times, like when I feel lonely and think no-one understands me I know deep down that my cat loves me unconditionally which is a really nice feeling. Also having the responsibility of looking after someone else takes my mind off my depression”
Pets are also a great way of bonding families closer together. David is a known artist who suffers from clinical depression and actively helps the cause, says of their family cat:
“He draws us all together in many moments of real pleasure as a family. Of course with it comes some anxieties, like when it's hiding under a bush and just won't come in at night, but we love seeing him sleep in his special places and often call each other to witness his cuteness. Also moments when just he and I sit together for a few minutes in peace and he seems to trust me enough to just sit on my lap and sleep or clean himself I feel a real softening and quieting of my heartbeat and my anxiety levels drop.”
Whether they're fluffy, feathery, easily excitable, or downright dopey, therapy pets definitely get the thumbs up from me.
Also see: Cats lift the mood