The Healing Power of Fur, Fins and Feathers
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
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.