Animal-assisted therapy

Anybody who has had any kind of contact with animals can sense the beneficial effects that they can have on human beings. Animals are not only useful for their company. Stroking a cat or a dog relaxes and calms you; it decreases your stress levels and stimulates your sociability. Walking your pet invites you to exercise, to keep in shape and, even, to have contact with other people.

All of these beneficial effects of pet ownership have been studied and used for the treatment of different human illnesses in what is known as animal-assisted therapy.

We know that this is a very old method, but most of its testimonies have not been documented properly. The first known references are from the middle of the twentieth century, when child psychologist Boris Levinson published the article “The dog as ‘co therapist’” in a specialized magazine. By chance, Levinson discovered the beneficial effects of his dog Jingles on one of his patients. He applied these techniques to the treatment of his other child patients, transforming Jingles into the first four-legged therapist in history.

Levinson’s steps opened up an unforeseen path that has been followed by therapists all over the world. It is no longer only dogs that are used, but also dolphins, horses and other pets, even farm animals. Each one of these animal species has special skills or abilities that help to deal with and contribute to the therapeutic process.

A multidisciplinary team composed of different health professionals, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and veterinary surgeons, carries out animal-assisted therapy.

Animals that participate in this type of treatment must fulfil certain physiological as well as emotional conditions, and must be physically as well as psychologically healthy. Once this first examination is carried out, the most adequate animals are chosen and trained.

The aims of this kind of therapy are as wide-ranging as the disorders that may be treated by it. On one hand, patients may receive psychosocial benefits, including raised self-esteem, improved decision-making abilities and communication, the development of positive thinking and a better relationship with the environment. Contact with animals brings the patient closer to the therapist. The animal facilitates a bond between therapist and client and may reduce the patient’s internal isolation and make communication easier. On the other hand, there are also physical goals, such as the recovery of motor functions, increased autonomy or better quality of life. These will vary depending on the illness being treated. Other emotional aims may be established also, such as satisfying the patient’s emotional needs and feelings of self worth, or reducing loneliness.

The benefits of animal-assisted therapy are aimed at disorders or needs in very different groups of people, such as special-education schools, older persons, penitentiaries and the disabled.

Dogs, because of their intrinsic capabilities, are excellent animals for use in assisted therapy. Their kind and docile personality toward humans, their obedience and their learning abilities make them the ideal animals for this purpose.

The selection of the most suitable animals for each type of therapy is carried out by subjecting them to a series of tests to determine their skills. In the first place, they undergo medical tests, a kind of check up in which the veterinary surgeon carries out an exhaustive physical examination. He verifies that there are no illnesses, especially zoonoses or diseases that can be transmitted to humans. He also administers the necessary vaccinations and worms the animal. Medical monitoring will be carried out periodically during the animal’s life to guarantee that it remains in good health.

On the other hand, dogs are also assessed mentally through a series of tests that establish their behaviour, sociability, skills and potential usefulness in therapy. The aim of these tests is to find balanced dogs that are able to maintain a good relationship with human beings and also able to easily learn the tasks that they are set.

Once these tests are performed, the selected animals usually enter a preparation or education phase. During this period they learn specific games at the same time that they develop the ability to live in family environments, which is a priority. The dog candidate must live with a foster family for some time. During this time it will learn to have contact and live with human beings of all ages: children, teenagers, adults and older persons. And, on the other hand, to share its space and to live in a community.

Once trained, dogs take their place in multidisciplinary teams that work in assisted therapy and that include different health professionals: therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and veterinary surgeons, all of whom work together.

Dogs, with their empathy, easily establish an affectionate bond with people they have contact with and offer unselfish, faithful and enthusiastic companionship, at the same time that they serve as liaison between patient and therapist. With unconditional faithfulness they accept human beings as they are, without judging their physical or mental appearance. Dogs turn into the patients’ playmates, faithful friends and the best healers for certain illnesses.

Did you know...

Aspirin may cause death in cats. Animals should not be given medicines that have not been prescribed by a veterinary surgeon.

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