For centuries man has had a mystical bond with animals. Scientists are still trying to figure out how this happens and explain how contact with animals affects a person’s physiology. But in recent years, regardless of the lack of empirical evidence to the benefits, nurses, psychologists, teachers and other professionals who deal with people with mental and physical illnesses have started to bring animal interaction into their facilities and treatment plans.
Pet therapy goes beyond seeing-eye dogs for the blind or companion dogs for the hearing impaired. The observed psychological impact of animals on people’s moods has produced other therapy purposes.
What is Animal Assisted Therapy?
Bringing animals directly into a therapeutic role is called Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) or Animal Assisted Activities (AAA). Sometimes the interaction involves simply bringing an animal into a hospital, care home or school to allow the children or residents to interact with the animal. Animal assisted therapy, by comparison, an animal is incorporated into a structured treatment plan.
The most common pets used are dogs and cats, but fish, rabbits, guinea pigs, horses and other farm animals are also used. Some programs take the animals directly to the patients; others take those with behavioral issues out of their normal surroundings and introduces them to a farm setting.
Dogs and cats in particular, however, go through a screening process to ensure that the animal has the right temperament and obedience training before being introduced into a therapeutic environment.
The Effect of Animals
While science still works to explain how animals affect a person’s emotions and health, psychologists have learned the following:
1) Animals foster and teach empathy. People are able to relate to animals because an animal’s world and perspective of the world is really simple. Their moods are easier to read than humans.
2) Animals draw those with mental illness or low self-esteem issues out of themselves by encouraging them to focus on someone or something other than themselves.
3) Animals bring out a nurturing instinct.