Pet Therapy

Written by Anna Zernone Giorgi | Published on October 21, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on October 21, 2013

What Is Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy is a guided interaction between an individual and a trained animal. It also involves the animal’s handler. The purpose of pet therapy is to help a patient recover from or cope with a health problem or a mental disorder. Pet therapy also is called animal-assisted therapy (AAT).

Dogs and cats are the animals most commonly used in pet therapy. However, fish, guinea pigs, horses, and other animals that meet screening criteria can be used. The type of animal chosen depends on the therapeutic goals of a patient’s treatment plan.

Pet therapy, or AAT, is sometimes confused with animal-assisted activities (AAA). Pet therapy is a formal, structured set of encounters. These meetings are planned to help patients reach specific goals in their treatment or progress.

AAA involves more casual meetings. In AAA, an animal and its handler interact with one or more people for comfort or recreation.

What Does Pet Therapy Do?

Pet therapy builds on the pre-existing human-animal bond. Thanks to this natural relationship, pet therapy can aid progress toward goals in human physical, social, emotional, and cognitive function (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2013).

Defined objectives are an important part of pet therapy. Progress at pet therapy encounters is recorded and tracked.

Pet therapy can be used in many different ways. Goals of a pet therapy program can be to:

  • improve fine motor skills
  • improve assisted or independent movement
  • increase self-esteem
  • decrease anxiety or loneliness
  • increase verbal communication
  • develop social skills
  • increase willingness to join in activities
  • improve interactions with others
  • motivate willingness to exercise

Who Benefits from Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy can be useful for:

  • patients undergoing chemotherapy
  • residents in long-term care facilities
  • patients hospitalized with chronic heart failure
  • veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder
  • children having physical or dental procedures
  • stroke victims and physical therapy patients regaining motor skills
  • mental health patients

What Are the Side Effects of Pet Therapy?

Patients who are allergic to animal dander may have reactions during pet therapy.

How Is Pet Therapy Administered?

The healthcare provider managing the patient’s treatment administers pet therapy. A trained handler, often the pet’s owner, takes the animal to every meeting. The animal and handler work under the provider’s direction to help the patient reach pre-determined goals. In most cases, handlers work as volunteers.

What Are the Steps of Pet Therapy?

The first step in pet therapy is the selection of a suitable animal. Many animal groups train and connect volunteer owners and pets with health care providers.

Before an animal and its handler can participate in pet therapy, the team usually has to fulfill certain requirements. This process typically includes:

  • a physical examination of the animal to confirm that it is immunized and free of diseases
  • an obedience training course to ensure proper animal control
  • an instructional course to teach the trainer about patient interaction
  • an evaluation of the animal’s temperament and behavior with the handler
  • a certification from the sponsoring organization

Once an animal-and-handler team is approved, animals are assigned for therapy based on patients’ needs. The animal’s type, breed, size, age, and natural behavior determine where it will be most helpful.

What Are the Benefits of Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy can help people gain improved emotional and physical health. It can be an effective treatment for reducing pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue (Mayo Clinic, 2012).

Some of the benefits of pet therapy are:

  • improved outward focus
  • acquired empathic and nurturing skills among children
  • improved rapport between a patient and health care provider
  • increase in mental stimulation as patients communicate about the animal
  • increased opportunities for physical contact
  • improved physiological state, including decreases in heart rate and blood pressure

What are the Risks of Pet Therapy?

Some of the biggest risks of pet therapy involve safety and sanitation. Animals in pet therapy programs are typically screened for behavior and health. The animals’ owners and handlers must also undergo training and evaluation to help ensure a positive experience.

While uncommon, human injury can occur when unsuitable animals are used. In addition, animals may suffer injury or abuse when handled inappropriately.

In some cases, patients may become possessive of the animals helping them. This can result in problems with low self-esteem when unrealistic expectations aren’t met. When an animal dies during pet therapy, patients may feel intense grief or even guilt.

How Does a Patient Prepare for Pet Therapy?

Discussion of proper pet handling is needed to ensure patient safety. The healthcare provider should establish realistic goals and expectations. 

What Is the Outlook After Pet Therapy?

The use and success of pet therapy is unique to each individual. Patients may have less anxiety during procedures when a pet is present. In rehabilitation, patients may be more motivated to practice their skills when working with a pet.

Patients suffering from sensory disabilities can communicate easily with a pet. This may encourage further human interaction with healthcare providers.

What Are the Results of Pet Therapy?

Patients in pet therapy may experience reduced cardiovascular reactions to stress. This is attributed to a process called “contact comfort.” In this process, the unconditional human-animal bond that forms through touch is thought to induce relaxation (Halm, 2008).  

Evidence of the physiological effects of pet therapy was found in a study of adult patients hospitalized with heart failure. Researchers credited pet therapy with improving levels of cardiopulmonary function, neurohormone levels, and anxiety (Cole, et al., 2007).

In the health care setting, animals can facilitate communication. Their presence encourages interactions among patients, healthcare providers, staff, and visitors (AVMA, 2013).

Pet therapy can have positive results for patients as well as others. Family members who watch pet therapy sessions report feeling better after animal visits (Mayo Clinic, 2012).

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