Humans have long healed ills by connecting with animals. In 1792, Quakers working in England recorded the benefits patients gained from interacting with poultry and rabbits. In the 1860s, Florence Nightingale spoke about the value of a “small, pet animal” for patients with chronic, long-term illness that kept them shut in and socially alone. In our time, research in the field of pet therapy is growing.

Benefits of pet therapy

Pet therapy is most useful at enlivening mental function and quieting emotional difficulties. Patients with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, poor self-esteem, phobias, autism, and attention-deficit disorder often respond well to pet therapy. Pet therapy can bring relief to people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease or who are isolated in a long-term care facility. Pets are used to give blind people more freedom and mobility.

My tiny Papillon dog, Pippin, comes to work with me daily. She often helps out by sitting next to children who are getting scary procedures, like a blood draw or allergy testing. She helps adults, too, and will sit in the lap of patients who are sad or struggling to talk.

Try it for yourself

If you’d like to try pet therapy, follow these guidelines for the best experience:

  • Set specific goals. Know what you want to achieve from the therapeutic animal interaction. Goals can be simply seeing your child smile for the first time in months, noting a depressed elderly person move from indifference about life to happy anticipation of a pet visit, or finding a new ability to speak about difficult emotions. Pet therapy can help with stress reduction, lowering blood pressure, or the development of empathy and regard for others.
  • Talk with your doctor. Your provider may be able to refer you to a qualified pet therapy professional and can help you set specific timelines to evaluate the progress and benefits of your pet therapy.
  • Interview providers of your proposed pet therapy. Find out where and when they trained. Ask about clinical experience with pet therapy and ask for details about the therapy animals. If the pet therapist has a facility, visit the site before agreeing to work with the provider.
  • Be realistic. Pet therapy isn’t going to cure severe mental illness or reverse the course of a terminal disease, but therapeutic interactions with animals can soften the edges of many harsh and scary conditions.

When my patient Debbie brought her daughter, Kaylee, to try animal therapy to deal with a traumatic family experiences, Kaylee was initially afraid to come out of the car. But after observing for a bit, she couldn’t resist the opportunity to touch and brush a horse and climbed out of the car with a tentative smile. That tiny breakthrough of happiness set both mother and daughter on what became a successful road to recovery.

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