What is Animal Assisted Therapy?
Animal assisted therapy seeks to improve physical, social and emotional functioning of patients through interaction with animals. The therapy is offered to patients through trained therapy animals in the presence of a human therapist. The animals can be dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, ducks, rabbits and birds. Activities that can be indulged with the animal include riding in case of horses and donkeys and gentle petting, cuddling, holding, playing and walking with in case of other animals.
When a patient interacts with animals, production of stress hormones reduces and production of happiness-inducing hormones (oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins) increases. The outcome is that the patient’s mood lightens and he or she feels happier and relaxed. This in turn helps the patient to cope with his physical or mental health condition better and also advances the primary treatment being received by the patent for his or her ailment.
Who can ideally benefit from this Therapy?
Children, adults and the elderly can all benefit from pet therapy. Physical health conditions like cerebral palsy, autism and mental retardation among children can benefit from pet therapy in respect of improvement in motor skills, verbal skills and social skills. For instance, autistic kids neither speak nor establish eye contact. But with animals the bonding is mainly physical and hence autistic children find it easier to connect with dogs and cats.
Among the elderly, Alzheimer’s sufferers gain from this therapy. So far as psychological conditions are concerned the therapy can treat children to curb behavioural issues such as aggression, shyness etc and adults with complaints like depression, anxiety, loneliness, stress etc. Recently three Golden Retriever therapy dogs have been deployed at Mumbai Airport to interact and calm the nerves of adults and children who are afraid of flying.
You can also train your dog or cat to be a therapist, provided the pet doesn't just tolerate human company but actually enjoys it and this is first ascertained by the trainer through a screening test. Shireen Merchant of Canines Can Care and Akash Lonkar / Minal Kavishkar of Animal Angels Foundation offer training courses.