Animal Therapy Warms Hearts and Heals Hurt

By Sandy Schroeder

When depression, anxiety or grief becomes overwhelming, often therapists can help. But now, using animals for therapy has proven to be an additional alternative.

Research shows animal-assisted therapy has its own unique power. If you have a dog or cat, you know how comforting it can be to curl up with your pet when things go wrong or the day has been too long.

How It Works

Taking this natural response a step further, animal-assisted therapy may use dogs or cats to help people who are in pain,  anxious or depressed. It can work individually, or as a group, with the animal being petted or fed treats. An individual may bond with the animal and generate oxytocin, the “love” hormone, or serotonin, a ”feel-good” brain chemical.

Retirement centers often use this technique. When my mother broke her leg and spent some time in a rehab/senior facility, I saw how well it works. The center had a gentle, live-in yellow retriever who spent his time visiting one senior after another.

On the weekends, family and friends came to visit and occasionally brought pets. One memorable weekend I was visiting my mother when I looked up to see a proud young man striding down the hall carrying a huge white rabbit. I am sure that made some senior’s day.

Unconditional Love

According to Harvard health researchers, animal therapy works so well because animals do not prejudge people. They just provide a big helping of tail wagging or purring with unconditional love for the person who needs it.

This sort of therapy might include caring for small birds or tanks of fish too. Almost any living thing that requires your care may improve your own mental state.

Research show animal-assisted therapy may score better than people therapy for individuals who are depressed or recovering from diseases such as cancer. Recent studies from oncologists show patients going through chemotherapy or radiation were emotionally much better when pet visits were included. Animal therapy is also quite effective in recoveries from  traumatic events, loss of a loved one, or other catastrophe.

Making It Happen

If this seems like a therapy you, or someone close to you, could use, it's easy to get started. If you feel you are ready, you could consider owning a pet, or volunteering to help at your local animal shelter. Your local senior center may also have information on pet therapy. Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International and the Good Dog Foundation organizations are available.  

You might also suggest animal-assisted therapy to friends or colleagues who could use a mental boost. You’ll know they followed your advice when you hear one wonderful story after another about their new cat, dog or rabbit.

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