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May 2017
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Animals, which since ancient times have been worshipped as being gifted with supernatural powers and as divines who can treat humans, are recognised as real therapists in the field of Pet Therapy, which makes uses of the human-animal relationship and its numerous natural and therapeutic powers. In this type of therapy, domestic animals and animals which can be tamed are used, although dogs, cats and horses are more common. This ever-growing use of animals as a way to improve human health has been studied and it appears that, according to the patients needs, rabbits, hamsters, birds, fish, dolphins and even farm animals like cows, goats and donkeys can successfully help.

A brief history of therapy with animals

The term pet therapy was coined in 1953 in America by an infant psychiatrist called Boris Levinson, and today this term describes a series of treatments, aimed at improving psycho-physical health, which is based on the human-animal relationship. In reality, using pets as a support for other forms of therapy dates back to ancient times: therapy involving animals was used by Hippocrates who recommended it for combating insomnia, lack of energy and symptoms related to stress, a type of therapy which is very similar to modern day hippotherapy. Hippotherapy was experimented with in the nineteenth century in France to support the rehabilitation of neurologically handicapped patients, but other forms of using animals to improve health conditions have been traced back to even earlier times and other places, and the animals used were mainly dogs and cats since they can spontaneously improve people’s moods and psychical problems.

Therapy methods with animals

Pet therapy is often considered a simple therapy based on contact with animals. As some experiences show, closeness to and relationships with pets can actually, in themselves, be naturally able to improve physical and psychological health. However, it is only therapy when dealing with more structured forms of therapy which must have the following characteristics:

  • the therapy is guided by more or less structured techniques and methods;
  • it is based on prefixed objectives;
  • there must be overall evaluations and monitoring, or different phases to the application.

More precisely, in the field of pet therapy, there are two types of activities that involve the help of animals to improve health:

  • Animal-assisted activities (AAA)  - these consist of educational or recreational activities carried out in the company of animals and aimed at improving the participants’ quality of life. This type of treatment does not require specific objectives for each session/visit but it does include general improvement objectives, leaving space for spontaneity and improvisation with respect to length of time and the planned activities;
  • Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) – this includes therapeutic activities aimed at improving the conditions of the patients’ health through a programme that has specific objectives, which are gradually fulfilled. The changes that can be made through this type of therapy, which involves the help of animals, can regard cognitive, emotional, behavioural, psycho-social and psychopathological aspects and they can be conducted with various therapeutic approaches, even though techniques of cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy are usually used.

In order to better understand the potential that pet therapy has, here is a list of the main benefits it can possibly induce when undergone:

From a cognitive point of view it is possible to:

  • improve certain mental capabilities, in particular, the ability to memorise things, and types of reflexive and inductive thoughts;
  • acquire the ability to read and use conventional languages and symbolic gestures, such as ‘symbolic commands’.

From an emotional point of view many results can be obtained, such as:

  • the possibility to encourage an increase in positive, emotional experiences that are needed to oppose negative feelings and emotions, developing things like empathy and emotional control;
  • the possibility to support and promote the emotional growth of children and adolescents, strengthening their emotional behaviour;
  • overcoming self-centred tendencies, which are typical in childhood, by encouraging the development of responsible behaviour and understanding the animal-therapist;
  • stimulating the development of good levels of self-esteem through the construction of a positive image of oneself.

From a behavioural point of view it is mainly possible to;

  • encourage relaxation of the body;
  • reduce hyperactivity and aggression;
  • use rules and appropriate behaviour in a pleasant way and use effective point/prize systems.

From a psycho-social point of view communication and relationship skills can be improved.

From a psychopathological point of view, that is, in relation to AAT treatment, it is possible to;

  • treat certain phobias, such as those related to situations that are avoided because of fears or insecurities following traumatic events and which can be gradually be addressed with emotional support and the sense of support that the presence of animals provides;
  • reduce stress and anxiety, especially when it is related to experiences of shock, conditions relating to institutionalisation (for example, being in prison, child institutes, elderly homes, and so on) or having to undergo long periods of medical treatment.

Finally, with respect to psychomotor aspects, it is possible to use forms of rehabilitation programmes and motor and postural habits that can act by stimulating muscle tone, in cases of muscle atrophy, and promote the motor skills of handicapped people.

Applications and contraindications

There are numerous ways and situations in which pet therapy can be applied and they are related to both the characteristics of the animals chosen and the techniques and methods used.

One of the main areas of application regards mood disorders. Isolation, solitude, melancholy and even more stable forms of negative affection, like depression, are positively affected by relationships with animals as the sufferers can stroke the animals and play with them. In fact, stroking animals induces the production of endorphins (neurotransmitters of pleasure) and it can also prevent and help to fight stress as it calms us down and moderates violent behaviour and conflicts, which, over time, also leads on to lowering blood pressure and levels of bad cholesterol. 

Another important area of application of pet therapy is neurological and cardio-circulatory illnesses, such as, senile dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, MS, convalescence after a coma, strokes and heart attacks. In these cases, pet therapy is carried out for rehabilitation and motor stimulation purposes, through exercises like walking with the animal in a less noisy and more motivating way, because this encourages mood improvements, which is usually a factor affected by these types of illnesses. In cases were the patient has limited mobility of the upper limbs, it is possible to encourage mobilisation of them and exercise dexterity through interaction with the animal, stroking it, brushing it or playing with it in a controlled way, even going as far as throwing a ball or object for it to retrieve.  

Pet therapy in the fields of psychiatric and psychopathological disorders is just as important. The founder of the term ‘pet therapy’ initially used this type of therapy in relation to psychotic disorders, like autism, to support the spontaneous tendencies some autistic children have to feel secure in a relationship with certain animals, such as dogs, horses or dolphins, which quickly become able to stimulate an opening in their seemingly inviolable worlds. The ability some animals have to reassure humans has, for some time now, allowed us to employ them as a useful tool in the treatment of post-traumatic disorders and phobias related to things or situations and, in some countries, it is already common to use pet therapy in treatment courses for psychological rehabilitation in cases where, following a seizure or stalking (persecution), the patient suffers from a paralysing fear which forces him/her to stay closed in a house. This type of treatment is very similar to that used for sensorial or motor problems which, by generating insecurity, tend to cause isolation, however this can be overcome gradually through pet therapy.

There are other types of applications of pet therapy that are used to stimulate physical or psychological health or learning and education, both through semi-structured programmes, like AAA, as well as through structured courses like AAT.  It is also possible to improve some learning disorders through educational courses with specific stages using a trained animal.

Something equally as useful is using the animal as a way to ease social relations, thanks to animals’ abilities to facilitate social interactions and conversations, as well as the ability they have to help develop relationship skills like empathy and communication through non-verbal and para-verbal channels, that is, through the most efficient use of the body, face, gestures and intonation of the voice. Using animals with children has proven to be a valid instrument for improving intellectual and relationship development because it has helped children to overcome selfishness and understand the thoughts, desires and capabilities of their playmate.

Even negative and unexpected events, like the loss of an animal for example, can represent a moment of psychological growth in as much as, if managed well, these events can help us to understand the experience of death as a natural part of life.

Despite the large number of therapeutic indications, there are various psychological and physical conditions which cannot be, or at least are not recommended to be, combined with pet therapy.

One psychopathology that cannot be treated with pet therapy is hypochondria, especially in situations in which the patient considers the animal to be a carrier of disease, which can also be the case for those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorders because they think animals are ‘dirty’.

When people suffer from psychopathic and serious aggression disorders, it is necessary to ensure the safety and security of the animal.

In cases of specific allergies, open wounds or immune system problems, it is best to avoid this type of therapy, even though strict hygiene rules are abided by.

In cases of zoophobia, which concerns a fear of a specific animal, it is sometimes possible to carry out desensitisation psychotherapy by gradually getting close to and touching the animal, which is overseen by a psychotherapist. Other times, however, if the problem is extreme, pet therapy is not appropriate.

Therapist and co-therapists

Pet therapy, in all its various forms, is not a spontaneous activity: it is conducted by a multidisciplinary group made up of various professional figures and operators specialised in this sector.

The exact composition of a pet therapy team varies according to the patients and the objectives of the patients. 

More precisely:

  • the animal that interacts with the patient, according to a detailed activity programme aimed at fulfilling the objectives of the therapy, is called the co-therapist;
  • if improving physical health is part of the therapy, a doctor gets involved whose skills must be specific; if the patients are disabled, a physiatrist is used, whilst a neurologist, psychiatrist or cardiologist is used for other types of rehabilitation;
  • the team usually includes a psychologist who is an expert in pet therapy and who therefore has skills in both human and animal behaviour, and who is used for treatments that involve psychological objectives, as well as treatment used to encourage and monitor the interactional and reactional behaviour of the patients with the animals;
  • it is extremely important to have a ethologist, or another expert of animal behaviour, present when choosing which animal to use, in addition to a psychologist, because these two experts must accurately choose the co-therapists through psycho-attitudinal tests, the aim of which is to test the animals in order to evaluate their reactions to unusual behaviour in advance so as to find the most appropriate animal;
  • a vet must be present at all times and must be an expert in this sector because he/she has the important role of monitoring the health of the co-therapist animals and the safety and hygiene of the treatment;
  • the trainers and instructors are also important and their work with the animals starts before the start of therapy and continues throughout the treatment in order to facilitate the co-relationship between therapist and patient.

Where pet therapy is carried out

Pet therapy sessions can be carried out in pet villages, as is usually the case for dolphin therapy and hippotherapy, or co-therapists can be brought to therapeutic and rehabilitation sessions where there are also patients taking part in other therapies or activities, as is often the case in hospitals, convalescence homes, schools or even prisons. For both AAA and AAT, the initial contact between the patient and the co-therapist animal occurs in a protected context where a therapist or trainer guides the session. In some cases patients even go on to adopt the animal so as to fully stabilise the results of the therapy.

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