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The healing power of pets: the benefits of animal-assisted therapy

Who doesn’t love the fun and affection of a pet? According to the 2015-2016 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, Americans own approximately 85 million cats, 77 million dogs, 14 million birds and seven million horses. Clearly, we appreciate the company of a loving pet and feel a responsibility to give these wonderful creatures a safe, healthy life. Yet, many pet parents aren’t aware that their furry friends provide more than just companionship. They help us live a healthier life, as well.

The power of the paw

The healing power of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been the source of multiple scientific studies. AAT has shown to be helpful for children who have suffered abuse, patients undergoing chemotherapy and veterans who are experiencing post-traumatic stress after returning from combat. The effectiveness of AAT has also been studied in patients who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Specifically, AAT has been found to reduce anxiety and increase interest in hobbies and activities.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and lover of chow chows, was a pioneer in pet therapy. Freud’s dog, Jofi, often accompanied him to therapy sessions to help reduce anxiety in patients. Freud believed he could analyze his patients by watching Jofi’s behavior. Interestingly, when a patient was feeling particularly anxious, Jofi would sit farther away.

Animal-assisted therapy—from dogs to donkeys

While dogs are still the most popular animal to be used in AAT, many different animals are being enlisted as pet therapists—including dolphins, cats, horses and even donkeys. In fact, certain types of animals offer specialized benefits. For example, cats and parrots have been found useful for people who struggle with aggression or impulse problems. Larger animals, like horses, have been found to improve self-esteem and emotion-regulation in teenagers.  

The road to becoming a therapy animal

Just like becoming a human therapist, there’s plenty of training involved with becoming a therapy animal. Therapy dogs must pass rigorous testing to demonstrate their ability to maintain calm behavior under pressure and to follow instructions. They are also exposed to various clinical settings, and they practice interacting with children and people in wheelchairs.

So the next time you’re feeling a little anxious or blue, remember Freud and Jofi, and consider partnering up with a friendly pet therapist.

Are you or a loved one experiencing symptoms of psychosis? Help is available. Learn more about animal assisted therapy at the Early Treatment Program. Call us today at (718) 470-8888.

Lauren Salvatore, PhD

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