Everything You Need to Know About Pet Therapy

If you’ve ever experienced a special bond with an animal, that deep connection which makes you feel relaxed and peaceful, then it won’t surprise you to know that this type of connection with a pet is not unique to you.

That feeling you get when you watch a video of cute kitten antics or adorable puppy mayhem, is the perfect example of how easily animals can have a profoundly positive effect on a human’s emotional state. Whether that’s a silly giggle or a heart melting moment, they’re all great emotional shifts as a direct result of interactions with animals. And this is just watching a video!

Put simply, being around animals makes us feel good and bring instant smiles to our faces. But exactly what is animal therapy?

Pet therapy definition

Also referred to as animal assisted therapy (AAT) or pets as therapy, these terms refer to an alternative or complementary therapeutic approach which take advantage of the natural healing ability of time spent with animals. The concept indicates that animal interaction can result in positive psychological changes, so the aim of this approach is to support individuals suffering from physical and mental health complaints to feel better on a psychological level.

What can animal assisted therapy help with?

Pet therapy can be used to support a variety of health conditions experienced in people, including:

  • Physical disabilities
  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress

How does pet therapy work in practice?

The most common place for pet therapy to be undertaken is in particular settings such as in hospitals, care facilities, prisons, schools, institutions and in the home. Usually animals are brought into the facility by a trained guide for a short visit in which patients spend time stroking, petting and enjoying the presence of a range of pets. All of the pets used for therapy as specially trained to ensure appropriate behaviours and to minimise any risk, for example you won’t see any lions being used in pet therapy, for obvious reasons!

When we suffer from physical health complaints it can cause us to experience a range of difficult emotions, such as stress, worry, fear, uncertainty, sadness, depression, anxiety. There is no claim here that pets can cure cancer, simply that the presence of an animal can help shift the emotional state of someone experiencing difficult emotions due to their physical health problems. In some cases where there is a physical disability, therapy dogs are used for both emotion and practical support, such as being trained to retrieve certain objects to a person with physical restriction or alert someone suffering from epilepsy of an impending seizure.

The theory behind why animals make us feel good

Why do animals make us feel so good though? There is one hypothesis known as biophilia, introduced by Edward O Wilson. He defined biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life” and that it’s likely that early human survival could well have been to some extent supported by signals from other animals in the environment signally danger or safety. This can be seen across the natural world.

Therefore, the biophilia hypothesis suggests that if we can see animals behaving peacefully and in a relaxed state, this may send an unconscious signal which induces feeling of safety and security. This in turn create physical changes such as relaxed muscles, lower blood pressure which come as a result of being in a relaxed state as opposed to a state of stress.

Benefits of pet therapy

There are a number of goals which pet therapy aims to achieve and can include the following:

  • Increasing self-esteem
  • Developing social skills
  • Decreasing feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Decreasing depression symptoms
  • Improving cardiovascular health and lowering blood pressure
  • Reduce stress levels and emotional distress
  • Pain reduction

Which animal can be used for pet therapy?

Whilst dogs are particularly popular, all sorts of animals can be used for animal assisted therapy – from small companion animals like mice and rabbits, exotic pets like snakes and lizard to large animals like horses and dolphins.