Most people can recall a situation when an animal made a positive difference in their lives.
Whether it was that time your friend’s cat curled up in your lap and purred when you cried over a break-up, or you saw an ailing relative’s breathing relax when petting the family dog, the idea of pets helping people isn’t a foreign one.
When most people think specifically of therapy animals, though, they think of dogs – and for good reason. Most therapy animals are dogs. But therapists and others who incorporate animals into their practice to achieve specific goals often work with animals as small as birds and as large as horses.
Here’s a breakdown of the most common pets working with therapists and educators.
Dogs are often involved in animal therapy programs in part because so many people have them as pets, but also because they can be trained to perform certain tasks or behave in a certain way. They often welcome human attention, are affectionate, and provide unconditional love.
Dogs often play a passive role in therapy, allowing patients to experience the benefits that come from petting, stroking, or talking to them. They can also be more active therapy partners, too, as the individual they’re helping learns to teach them tricks or new behaviors.
While cats are part of a therapy team less often than dogs, they are valuable in situations where the patient will do better with a pet that seems less intimidating than a dog. Cats are often more skittish than dogs, and that can be an advantage in situations where therapists want to teach boundaries or more gentle behavior. They can also help improve fine motor skills through brushing or buckling and unbuckling a collar, or for the simple and loving comfort of a small animal that responds well to being petted.
Equine therapy can serve people with physical, developmental, or emotional limitations. Horses are social animals that respond positively to slow, deliberate actions. Their caring, consistent nature fosters trust and self-esteem in patients, especially younger ones who have been abandoned or abused.
These gentle, patient, accepting, and curious animals can help teach community, commitment, family values, self-esteem, and boundary setting. They have been incorporated successfully into programs with children and adults with behavioral issues as well as with families with boundary and commitment concerns.
Guinea pigs, rabbits, and birds
Teachers with young students enjoy incorporating caring for small animals such as guinea pigs and rabbits into their classroom environment and lessons. The classroom pets help students learn specific skills that include counting (for example, dispensing rabbit food), empathy, the impact of calm behavior, and responsibility – all of which extend to person-to-person relationships, too. Smart and empathetic parrots, on the other hand, have been known to bring nursing home residents out of self-imposed isolation.
Any animal’s success in a therapeutic environment depends in large part on the human on its team – the co-therapist’s skills, experience, and knowledge of reasonable animal assisted therapy goals and outcomes. Pairing the right animal with the right situation, though, can bring rewards to everyone involved – the patient, the pet, and the therapist.
Remember, to bring your pet into institutions or facilities in order to provide animal assisted therapy, both you and your animal have to be evaluated for readiness for this kind of work and environment, and you have to be registered as a team. Learn more about this in our article, “5 steps for registering your pet to be a pet therapy animal.”
To learn more about animal assisted therapy, visit Oakland University’s animal assisted therapy website.
Which animal is the best choice for your animal assisted therapy goals?