What is PT ? "Pet Therapy"

by Luz Dayrit, PT,DPT

What do the movies Marley & Me, Okja, and A street cat named Bob have in common? The answer is, they are all movies that show the strong power of the human-animal bond. If you are a pet owner, you can understand very well why a lot of studies claim that pets can change lives. A good testament of this statement is James Bowen and his cat Bob in the movie “A street cat named Bob”. James Bowen was a recovering heroin addict before he met Bob. After adopting Bob, James had a purpose to turn his life around and fully recovered. Our story with our pets might not be as movie-esque just like James and Bob’s, but we could all agree that our pets can bring us warmth and comfort during difficult times. Today, when everything seems to not be going right, we could find a friend in our pets. Just like our friends who can be our shoulder to cry on, our dogs, cats, and rabbits can also be our source of relief. We might not be able to talk with our pets, but their presence alone is enough to give us strength. According to experts, our pets not only have the ability to provide us with emotional support, but also, they can provide a lot of health benefits.

According to studies, spending time with our pets can decrease pain, increase immune functioning, lower blood pressure and heart rate. A certain study, for example, showed that a pet owner in a stressful situation had lower blood pressure when he was with his pet. Another study showed that the blood pressure of a person with borderline hypertension declined significantly in five months after adopting a pet in a shelter. On top of these health benefits, spending time with pets is said to be beneficial to cardiovascular health. Taking care of pets takes responsibility. It includes feeding, giving baths, and making sure that they get their exercise. When we take our dogs on walks or hikes, we also get to move and stretch. As cleaning our pets and looking after our pet also takes work, we also get to have our share of exercise. So, in a way, taking care of our pets pushes us to have an active lifestyle which is good for our hearts and minds. Plus, it lowers cholesterol levels and triglyceride which are heart disease indicators.

As much as spending time with our pets improves our physical health, spending time with our animal friends also improves our emotional health. We, as humans, are social creatures by nature. So, naturally, we live and constantly crave for social interaction. In a time where we are living on lockdowns and social distancing, our pets can provide us with the companionship that we need. No matter how small they are, pets can make us feel less stressed and lonely. Also, spending time with them can alleviate our anxieties. When we interact and play with them, our brain releases serotonin and dopamine which boosts our mood and eases our depression. In other words, they make us happy and their presence alone is enough to make us feel better.

Our pets do not only have the ability to bring comfort at home, but professionally, they also have the ability to bring comfort. In the field of psychotherapy, there is a form of therapy called Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) where animals are used to help people recover and cope with health problems like heart disease and mental health disorders. Unlike AAA which stands for Animal-assisted activities, AAT is done in a more professional and formal setting. It involves an arranged set of sessions that help people meet therapeutic goals on their treatment plan. Just as different people have specific goals on their own treatment plan, the animals that doctors use in their sessions also differ and are chosen depending on the goals people have on their treatment plan. Most of the time, dogs and cats are used in Animal assisted Therapy. But any animal that meets the screening criteria can be used in pet therapy.

First and foremost, before a mental health professional can proceed with an AAT session, the client must first be briefed about what AAT is about. Of course, before we commit to anything, we must first be aware of what we are getting ourselves into. And, this is protocol in any situation. Then, with the assistance of a trained handler, the doctor or therapist would discuss proper handling of the animal to ensure the safety of the client, as well as the pet. In Animal Assisted Therapy, it is important to select the best pet that will suit the needs of the client best. To do so, the pet handler must send certain requirements to a medical facility so that the animal can be evaluated. These requirements include the following: evidence that the animal took a physical examination confirming that it is immunized and free of diseases, evidence that that will show that the animal took an obedience training course , and certification from a sponsoring organization. During the screening, the medical facility will consider the animal’s type, breed, size , age and natural behavior so it can know which animal will fit the client best.

For 10-15 minutes, a client can pet and spend time with a pet and its handler during an AAT session. During hospital visits, pet therapy makes a good distraction for patients who are usually distressed or anxious. Seeing a friendly face such as a cute dog makes the usual scary hospital visit a less threatening one. Pet therapy does not only help people in hospital settings, but also, they help students in schools and universities deal with their anxiety and depression. These few minutes of pet therapy may not seem enough to give people some sort of healing, but according to many who have tried it, AAT has provided them with comfort and stress during stressful situations.

Since people have different reasons for doing pet therapy, the goals that they want to achieve in this form of therapy also varies. Just like in any form of therapy, having a goal or objective is necessary. These goals and objectives are used to measure the success and progress of clients in their respective programs. A client may pursue AAT to improve their motor skills and social skills. For other clients, their aim may be to ease their anxiety and depression. It is usually different for every client.

Just like any form of therapy, there is no guarantee that Animal Assisted Therapy or pet therapy would work for everybody. Especially for people who are not animal lovers, AAT might not be as effective for them. On the other hand, for people who do love animals, pet therapy is said to be worth the try. At home or professionally, pets can make us feel less alone and loved. With just a stroke or a touch, our pets can relieve our anxieties and ease our depression. They give us something to live for because, in a way they are like family to us. There is no denying that life in the pandemic is hard, but we have our pets to be thankful for because they make these hard times in our life bearable, and a bit easier. The point is we are never alone. In this time and world that we are living in, we can not only find love and support from our friends and family, but we can also feel it in our pets. #lovepets

Further Reading:

Leslie Becker-Philips Phelps Phd “Stressed? Spending time with animals might help

Elizabeth Scott,MS.How owning a dog or cat can reduce stress

Emma Lovell. Pet Therapy: Why Spending time with animals is good for your Mental Well-Being

Pet therapy: Animal as healers

Pet therapy

Melissa Hogenboom. Why do we love our pets so much?