Our furry, feathered and scaled friends are turning up more and more in therapists’ rooms, aged care facilities and hospitals thanks to their healing powers.
The treatment is called animal-assisted therapy, and it involves pets being used to help people who are sick or suffering from depression oranxiety. Overseas, there are university courses in the field, while here in Australia universities such as Monash in Melbourne are investigating how animals can assist humans in getting well.
Helping abused kids
Researchers at the Monash Injury Research Institute recently completed a pilot study that used animals such as guinea pigs and rabbits to teach empathy to children who’d experienced domestic violence and to help instil greater coping skills.
The study, which was carried out over a period of two years, found that the children who benefited most from animal-assisted therapy were those who didn’t trust adults, were sad or acting out in aggressive ways and hadn’t responded to traditional methods of counselling.
“The children recognise they’re in charge of a vulnerable being such as a guinea pig,” lead researcher Dr Neerosh Mudaly says. “They learn empathy and control, and often take these lessons back into their families, where perhaps they bullied their more vulnerable younger siblings.”
Repeated experiences of gentle, calming contact with small animals in a safe environment appears to have a “dramatic effect” in helping children heal from abuse and violence, Dr Mudaly says. “It may also help break the cycle of violence and abuse that these children may carry into adolescence and adulthood.”
Melbourne psychologist Melanie Jones has two “working dogs” – a playful labrador and a gentle mini schnoodle (schnauzer/poodle). Together, this trio works with people needing the help of a psychologist, but who may have trouble trusting, communicating and engaging with another person.
“I can use my dogs’ very different personalities to show how people can also have very different personalities,” Jones says. “Dogs are also good at reading emotional situations. They’ll react and respond to different behaviours, which helps clients see how their own emotional responses can impact on others.”
Nerys Lewis, who runs Empathy Education & Training as part of the Monash study, says a key reason why animals are effective in therapy is that they greatly shorten the period of relationship-building between client and therapist. “There’s something about the presence of a relaxed and happy animal that suggests the accompanying human can be trusted,” she says. “This is particularly true of children.”
In the US, dogs’ ability to respond to moods has been used in marriage counselling. Colorado therapist Ellen Winston brings her canine assistant Sasha to sessions. When the clients are upset, they get comfort from patting Sasha, who sits between them. But if the couple yell at each other, Sasha will walk to the door to leave. Winston uses those moments as teaching points.
Jones says there’s a strong future for animal-assisted therapies, with research piling up to show how effective it can be. She cites a study that found preschool kids were better able to follow directions during assigned tasks if they were accompanied by a trained poodle rather than when they were alone, with another human or had a stuffed toy with them. Animals are also being used in the treatment of autistic kids, while in aged-care facilities they’ve been found to calm dementia patients while also improving the happiness levels of residents and encouraging them to stay healthy because they feel needed.
“Research has shown that for some people, having an animal involved in the therapy can be the difference between the treatment being successful or not,” Jones says. “Having animals involved has been found to promote the ‘oxytocin effect’ – the feelgood chemical linked with bonding and love. If animals help humans produce oxytocin, it helps us to engage more, lower stress and better respond to treatment.”
4 surprising ways a pet makes you healthier
1. Cats dramatically cut the risk of heart attack
A 10-year study by the University of Minnesota Stroke Center found that people with a feline at home were 40 per cent less likely to have a cardiovascular incident and 30 per cent less likely to have a stroke.
2. Dogs can detect medical dangers
Pooches can be trained to respond to seizures (lying next to their owner during a fit to prevent injuries from convulsions), hit emergency buttons and even detect changes in blood sugar levels on the breath of diabetics.
3. Looking at goldfish can improve eating habits
Malnourished Alzheimer’s patients are more likely to show a significant improvement in eating habits in the presence of a fish tank, according to studies published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research.
4. Stroking an animal reduces blood pressure
Rhythmically petting a snake – or any other animal – may reduce stressand lower your blood pressure and heart rate, according to studies published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.