Animals that serve in therapeutic settings come in many shapes, sizes and species. While dogs are the best-known companions, a wide variety of other animals gives healing and assistance to people. These include rabbits, alpacas, ducks and donkeys, so you might consider whether your farm buddies could help others in this important way.
Therapy animals are different than service animals. Service animals belong to people with disabilities and have a legal right to accompany their owners wherever they go. Therapy animals are brought by their owners to facilities, homes and groups for brief visits that focus on affection, comfort, socialization and reducing anxiety.
Therapy animals are more diverse that dogs and horses. Goats are getting popular as yoga assistants. Therapy donkeys have their own special community listed at Donkey Therapy USA.
Simply having a four-legged friend requires a person to keep up the pace. Whether someone is recovering from an injury or coping with a debilitating condition, an animal friend makes movement easier. In 2010, a 52-week study by researchers from the University of Missouri of sedentary adults paired with therapy animals found that individual people didn’t need to own an animal to feel motivated to walk it, thereby increasing their activity. These people lost an average of 14 pounds. Even if a participant could not keep up with walking a dog or trotting around with a pot-bellied pig, tasks such as brushing or combing an animal can strengthen fine motor skills. Smaller, lap-size animals such as rabbits, reptiles and birds are a good fit for people who are less mobile or in wheelchairs.
Animal companions can make a person smarter. Read With Me is a therapy animal reading program coordinated by Pet Partners. Read With Me links willing and patient listeners, usually of the canine persuasion, with elementary school children. Birds such as macaws, ducks and chickens have also been paired with children who practice reading out loud to their nonjudgmental animal friends. Some research suggests that an animal’s presence helps a child focus and becomes a motivation to continue reading because it results in a fun reward. For more than 30 years, animal-assisted reading programs have helped struggling readers improve and feel more confident.
According to studies in Germany and Australia, health care costs decrease when pet parenting increases. However, the healing benefits of animals are not restricted to spending time with your own pet. In hospitals and long-term care facilities, visits from therapeutic animals can provide a surrogate bonding relationship that promotes healing. Research has shown stress hormones are lessened and mood-elevating chemicals increase in patients after therapy animal visits.
If you have a cat, horse, bird, guinea pig, mini pig, alpaca, llama or a even a pet rat that you would like to certify as a therapy animal, consider volunteering with Pet Partners. The group’s programs prepare and support your team to make short visits to nursing homes, hospitals or similar facilities. Starting with a straightforward quiz, you can learn quickly whether your animal has the proper disposition and whether you have the skills as a handler to get started. The group is dedicated to keeping therapy animals happy while they work, and it emphasizes training handlers to read their animals’ cues. Pet Partners provides ongoing training in special areas such as using therapy animals to visit veterans and people with Alzheimer’s disease. It also partners with organizations to help college students relieve stress during finals week, as pictured below.
If you want to take animal therapy to a more advanced level, Eagala is a leader in psychotherapy horse programs. Its certification program requires a partnership between a mental health professional and an equine specialist in order to practice. Eagala holds professional standards for both roles, and it requires training at its facility in Utah as well as ongoing mentorship. Horseback riding is not part of its agenda. All work is conducted on the ground. I’ve witnessed this type of treatment for youth going through difficult life situations, and the simple act of brushing a horse brought out surprising changes in their attitudes.
For a list of animal-assisted therapy programs around the world, visit the Animals and Society Institute website.