Pet Health

The Heal­ing Power of Fur, Fins and Feathers

Better Health - - CONTENTS - By Dr Lana Hus­bands, MBBS (UWI)

Park­land Florida, Sandy Hook and “9/11” are names and dates that will live on in in­famy; rooted in our minds and hearts and whose men­tion is es­pe­cially poignant for sur­vivors and rel­a­tives of the dead and in­jured. These are ex­am­ples of ex­treme tragedies when dogs have been used as un­of­fi­cial “ther­a­pists” to help those in­volved heal.

His­tor­i­cally, an­i­mals have been used in ther­apy since the 17th cen­tury to help al­le­vi­ate pain and anx­i­ety in chil­dren and adults. For in­stance, per­sons who have ex­pe­ri­enced dif­fer­ent forms of abuse, suf­fered ill­ness or grieved the pass­ing of a loved one, have found an­i­mals to be a great source of com­fort. Post-trau­matic Stress Dis­or­der (PTSD) and other re­lated ill­nesses:

Long af­ter a trau­matic event such as war has passed and im­me­di­ate threats to life and limb have been ad­dressed and re­solved, lin­ger­ing, un­bear­able mem­o­ries have caused many to suf­fer from a wide range of neg­a­tive emo­tions, rang­ing from malaise to ma­jor de­pres­sion and sui­ci­dal thoughts. Treat­ment modal­i­ties vary widely, as do their re­sults in achiev­ing restora­tion of health and pro­duc­tiv­ity. For those per­sons who have not re­sponded solely to more con­ven­tional forms of treat­ment, an­i­mals have been used as an ad­junct to ther­apy with great suc­cess. Many pet own­ers re­late that on re­turn­ing home from a stress­ful work day, or if they had ex­pe­ri­enced some other stres­sor, their dog came close, gave them a nuz­zle or re­as­sur­ing lick, and they felt com­forted. It seemed that their dog “knew” how they felt and wanted to “make it right”. An­i­mals are gen­er­ally per­ceived as non-threat­en­ing and non­judg­men­tal, and are thus seen as the “ideal ther­a­pist”.

Let us ex­plore two forms of an­i­mal ther­apy:

• An­i­mal-as­sisted Ther­apy (AAT) is a struc­tured, goal-di­rected in­ter­ven­tion in which an an­i­mal is in­cor­po­rated as an in­te­gral part of the treat­ment process. AAT is de­liv­ered and/ or di­rected by a pro­fes­sional health or hu­man ser­vice provider. AAT is doc­u­mented and eval­u­ated within an in­di­vid­u­alised treat­ment plan. Ses­sions gen­er­ally have a fixed length. An ex­am­ple is the use of an­i­mals to re­ha­bil­i­tate war veter­ans suf­fer­ing from PTSD.

• An­i­mal-as­sisted Ac­tiv­i­ties (AAA) are gen­er­ally the ba­sic ‘meet-and-greet’ ses­sions of pets vis­it­ing peo­ple in a hos­pi­tal, long-term care cen­tre, etc. They pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for mo­ti­va­tional, ed­u­ca­tional, ther­a­peu­tic and/or recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties. AAA are de­liv­ered by a spe­cially trained pro­fes­sional, para­pro­fes­sional or vol­un­teer. No de­fined treat­ment goals are planned for each visit; de­tailed notes and doc­u­men­ta­tion are not re­quired, vis­its are spon­ta­neous and can be as short or long as nec­es­sary. (The tragedies men­tioned in the open­ing para­graph are ex­am­ples of

AAA.)

Does it re­ally work?

Un­der­stand­ably, with any rel­a­tively new med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion, there will be ques­tions such as: Are re­sults mea­sur­able and re­pro­ducible? Is this just an­other fad in the scope of al­ter­na­tive medicine which serves no prac­ti­cal pur­pose, but is lit­tle more than a “feel good” rem­edy?

Hap­pily, there is in­creas­ing and com­pelling ev­i­dence that trained an­i­mals (most com­monly dogs who are eas­ily and pre­dictably trained), have been suc­cess­fully used as stan­dard, vi­tal emo­tional sup­port for suf­fer­ers. The first for­mal ther­a­peu­tic work and re­search was done by Dr Boris Levin­son, a re­spected child psy­chol­o­gist. In

1961, while work­ing with a with­drawn and men­tally im­paired young boy, Dr Levin­son made an “ac­ci­den­tal dis­cov­ery” in­volv­ing his dog, Jin­gles. Levin­son briefly left Jin­gles alone with the boy and, when he re­turned, found the young boy in­ter­act­ing with the dog. This in­spired Levin­son to do fur­ther re­search with Jin­gles and his young pa­tients. He found that the pres­ence of a dog dur­ing ther­apy ses­sions had a pos­i­tive ef­fect on im­paired young pa­tients. Levin­son is of­ten cred­ited with coin­ing the term “pet ther­apy” and sug­gested its use as part of stan­dard care. As they care­fully lis­ten, the ther­a­pist may then be able to ef­fec­tively pro­ceed with stan­dard treat­ment modal­i­ties (in­clud­ing med­i­ca­tion if in­di­cated) for a more pos­i­tive long-term re­cov­ery.

In a highly re­garded book pub­lished in 1983 (re­vised 1996) en­ti­tled “Be­tween Pets and Peo­ple”, med­i­cal pro­fes­sors note a 1992 study by an Aus­tralian car­di­ol­o­gist, of 5 000 peo­ple who vis­ited a clinic to find ways to re­duce heart dis­ease. The study found that peo­ple with pets had lower blood pres­sure and lower blood fat lev­els than those with­out pets, even though the two groups were alike in diet and ex­er­cise. The au­thors also point to the trend by nurs­ing homes to in­cor­po­rate an­i­mals into the rou­tine and en­vi­ron­ment for pa­tients.

Are only dogs use­ful?

Not at all; there are sev­eral, al­beit mainly anec­do­tal re­ports that cats, guinea pigs, rab­bits, hens, fish and even rep­tiles may be used, but these are of­ten owned by the pa­tient. Horses are in­creas­ingly em­ployed as sources of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion in help­ing per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties, autis­tic chil­dren and those with drug and other ad­dic­tions.

How­ever, dogs are more widely ac­cepted, owned and (as men­tioned), pre­dictably trained and can re­main on a leash if needed, es­pe­cially if around the el­derly, who may not be com­fort­able with an an­i­mal sim­ply roam­ing amongst them. The pa­tient may then stroke, brush or even be en­cour­aged to walk with the dog to in­crease their mo­bil­ity. Those with de­men­tia are re­ported to be­come more ver­bal and so­cia­ble af­ter con­tact with an­i­mals and this is presently be­ing more widely stud­ied.

Chil­dren may be left with the an­i­mal in the care of a trusted parent or of­fi­cial guardian while the ther­a­pist uses a video cam­era in the room to record the in­ter­ac­tion (with the child un­aware that he/she is be­ing ob­served) and sub­se­quent ses­sions may grad­u­ally in­clude more di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Any­one who dis­likes or fears an­i­mals or is al­ler­gic to them, is not a likely can­di­date for AAA in­ter­ven­tion.

We all know that to feel happy, pros­per­ous and ful­filled, we need our men­tal, phys­i­cal and emo­tional needs met; we highly value our fam­i­lies and friend­ships and when we ex­pe­ri­ence pain and any kind of suf­fer­ing, we all need a help­ing hand; and who knows? This may just come from a beak, a fin or a paw!

Dr Lana Hus­bands MBBS (UWI) is the Cre­ative Direc­tor of Homes, Hearts and Paws of Love (new AAA not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion) and mem­ber of Ac­tion For An­i­mals Bar­ba­dos.

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