Recently, more and more people are talking about animals as a source of emotional support. It also comes to comical situations: in November last year, a passenger was removed from a US Airways flight, whose therapeutic pig began to pace the aircraft cabin. We are talking about the kindest use of animals in medicine – pet therapy, in which animals do not suffer, and people feel better.
How does pet therapy work?
Pet therapy advocates believe that animals help stabilize emotions, become more relaxed and calm, develop trust and self-confidence, and improve communication, self-regulation and socialization skills.
In addition, pets relieve loneliness, reduce irritability and anger, reduce PTSD symptoms, help overcome insomnia, and increase levels of the joy hormones oxytocin and endorphins.
How pigs and cats can help to improve mental health?
Scientists are still figuring out exactly how pet therapy works and to what extent it is effective. According to some studies, monitoring animals increases the activity of the prefrontal cortex of the cerebral hemispheres of the brain – this area is involved in decision-making and is responsible for social interaction. From contact with animals, endorphins are released in our bodies – as when playing sports, kissing or fond memories. Endorphins have an analgesic effect, therefore, pet therapy to some extent reduces the severity of pain syndromes, for example, in fibromyalgia. These same substances reduce stress and anxiety levels, soothe and lift your mood. Contacts with animals, apparently due to the same hormones, normalize high blood pressure and improve the functioning of the cardiovascular system.
This is not to say that any one animal helps to treat a specific disease. All animals improve the condition of patients in general: thanks to working with animals, patients are more adherent to treatment (apparently, it is more interesting to be treated in a good company), experience more positive emotions, relax and even recover faster after anesthesia. Monitoring animals distracts from your own problems and helps you switch. Contact with animals is communication that can help people with mental disabilities deal with feelings of isolation and save the elderly from loneliness.
But zootherapy also has effects that depend on the particular animal. For example, hippotherapy – horse-riding treatment – is recommended for neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy. Staying on and managing a horse requires physical strength, balance, coordination – and horseback riding helps you develop all of these skills. In addition, the horse is an animal with character and needs to be communicated with, even while riding, which helps to develop social skills. It’s also nice that self-esteem rises – literally because a person is “on a horse”. Together, this turns hippotherapy into a tool for socialization.
Dolphin therapy has about the same effect on humans. Movement in the water and contact with an intelligent animal develop physically and emotionally, help a person move, perform non-standard actions. And cat therapy is usually recommended to relieve stress: vibrations from purring and watching the soft movements of cats help to relax. When choosing animals, their character is also taken into account. People with disabilities that interfere with movement are selected as companions of calm, phlegmatic animals. For patients who need to be motivated, active animals are suitable to cope with depression or fear.
Other petsin zootherapy
Sometimes a small, quiet and calm animal is needed for therapy. In this case, experts recommend choosing a rabbit. These animals are easy to take care of, they are suitable for those who, for whatever reason, cannot have a dog or cat at home. Petting rabbits helps develop and maintain fine motor skills. The only essential condition is that the animal must be socialized and enjoy being stroked.
At first glance, reptiles are not associated with animals that help solve emotional problems. However, an experiment conducted in London showed that caring for such a pet distracts a person from difficulties and unpleasant experiences. This is because caring for a reptile requires increased attention and concentration. In addition, an unusual pet often increases self-esteem – the owner gains confidence that if he is capable of complex pet care, he can succeed in any chosen area.
This is primarily about parrots – a high level of empathy and the ability to speak make them great companions. Experts suggest teaching parrots certain words and phrases that help in working through psychological difficulties. Parrots can help victims of violence and are better suited to treating PTSD than other pets. In the United States, to help veterans of the fighting in Iraq, the Parrots For Patriots center has been created, where every soldier who needs support can choose a bird and take care of it.
A new trend that recently emerged in Europe and then in the United States is cow cuddling therapy. Susan Wooller, an American woman, has brought this type of therapy worldwide fame. A year ago, Suzan and her husband, farmers in upstate New York, offered a cow hug to everyone. The couple try to hold no more than one or two sessions a day so as not to tire the animals. The benefit of this hug is that the heart rate of cows is slower than that of humans. By hugging a cow, people get a relaxation and pacification effect similar to that of yoga or meditation.
Why horses and dolphins are not helpful to everyone?
One must understand that zootherapy is a method that requires serious research and evidence. Unfortunately, sometimes animal therapy is advertised in bad faith, especially when it comes to the rehabilitation of children. For example, they promise unprecedented progress from training with dolphins – while there is no serious evidence that it is dolphins that improve the condition of patients.
If pet therapy is still considered an auxiliary method of treatment, then the animal must be picked up with a specialist. It all depends on the goals of treatment, the patient’s condition and his personal characteristics. Even if a person needs a loyal friend and walks in the fresh air, but he is simply afraid of dogs, you should not involve him in communication with them. A patient with spinal injuries should not ride a horse, even if he wants to try hippotherapy, with a lack of warmth and close relationships, a turtle is unlikely to seriously help.
There are also more prosaic contraindications. For example, allergies to fur and skin, in which you should not have a cat. In addition, not every animal can become medicinal. Animals can be aggressive and fearful, and in this case, communication with them will not be beneficial, especially for a person with a mental disorder or neurological disorders. But the restrictions can be circumvented – choose an animal that does not scare and to which there is no allergy, to practice in places where animals are prepared to meet patients – and then the classes will be more beneficial than harmful.