Animals have been used for decades to help people suffering from a wide range of physical and psychological issues. Research has shown that these interventions, mostly featuring dogs and cats, but also creatures as diverse as birds, fish, and horses, can help cheer up the chronically ill, reduce stress, reduce blood pressure, increase oxytocin levels in the brain, and even extend their owners’ lives.
But what does this mean for the animals involved? Are they getting anything out of the deal? It turns out the answer is yes. Here are 6 ways that animals involved in pet therapy (also called animal-assisted activity) benefit from helping us:
1. Animals in shelters who are walked frequently by volunteers as part of an exercise program are better socialized. The more frequent interaction these pets get from all the attention makes them better pets, and more likely to get along with a potential adoptive family.
2. In another study, returned military veterans with PTSD train shelter dogs on obedience skills. This helps the vets deal with their emotional problems by giving them a chance to interact with a dog that trusts and accepts them unconditionally, regardless of their illness or disability. And it helps the dogs’ behavior, too, as they learn to trust and respond to the men and women they’re working with.
3. Programs like these bring the public to animal shelters to interact with dogs and cats one-on-one. This increased attention is great for the animals, because it brings greater awareness to homeless pets. These dogs and cats are more likely to be adopted after participating in pet therapy programs.
4. This increased public attention has indirect benefits for the animals, too. Even if a family isn’t able to adopt a dog or cat from the shelter, people may be inspired to volunteer with the animals or donate money or resources to help keep shelters up and running.
5. Service and therapy animals experience a deep connection with their owners and those they interact with. Because of this unique bond, these animals may have a more stable home life, less likely to be given away or neglected.
6. Some organizations even focus on animal rehabilitation as a form of therapy. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium connects special-needs children to sick or injured marine life, allowing kids to play the role of caretaker. Children with disabilities can easily relate to and empathize with these animals, and it inspires them to give these animals their all.
There is still work to be done. Some therapy animals aren’t placed with families or animal welfare organizations. They may live in residential facilities, such as nursing homes, where there may not be anyone trained to work with the animals. This can be problematic if the animal starts experiencing stress from their surroundings and there’s no one trained to pick up on or alleviate the animal’s anxiety.
It’s important that animals in therapy programs be provided with the resources they need to ensure that they remain healthy and happy – and that the services they provide to the humans around them are repaid with love, respect, and affection.
Photo credit: Silvia