“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language,” said German philosopher, Martin Buber, and science backs his assertion up fully. The US has over 500,000 service animals helping people with physical and mental ailments and children are one of their biggest beneficiaries. Simply having a pet at home or having access to one can make a big difference to one’s quality of life. Some 74% of pet owners, for instance, say that they enjoy improved mental health thanks to animals. Moreover, simply petting a puppy can stabilize your blood pressure. Of course, animal therapy takes it a step further, since animals weave their magic within a formal therapeutic setting. If you were wondering about the many settings in which animal therapy is used, read on.
The Physical and Mental Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)
AAT has been found in numerous studies to have a host of physical and mental benefits. Pets can improve heart health, improve a child’s fine motor skills and joint movements, accelerate recovery from surgery, reduce pain, and increase. On an emotional level. AAT can be particularly powerful. It can reduce stress, hone compassion and empathy, boost self-confidence and self-esteem, and help battle depression and anxiety.
Pet Therapy for Mobility Issues
Mobility disabilities in children are common in the US, with cerebral palsy (CP) alone affecting between one and four per 1,000 children. CP affects a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. If you are researching this disorder, you will probably find that the typical cerebral palsy care guide lists animal-assisted therapy as a highly successful way for children to get the most from physical therapy sessions. Pet therapy essentially involves working with animals to help them reach their goals. The presence of pets lowers stress and makes sessions more fun for kids. Animals can also provide physical support for children while they are carrying out their exercises. One popular type of animal-assisted therapy is equine therapy, which can include riding, feeding, and petting horses. Equine therapy has been found to boost the physical and mental health of children with cerebral palsy, having a particularly positive effect on their balance, endurance, and strength.
Animal-Assisted Therapy and Autism
Animals are often used successfully with children with autism. They act as a non-threatening ‘intermediary’ between children and therapists, helping to make them feel relaxed during therapeutic sessions. Some animals are trained to help children with autism who have anxiety. For instance, dogs can be taught to paw at a child or nudge them when they indulge in repetitive behaviors. Pets can also be taught to use their body weight to aid with anxiety symptoms. This approach is known as ‘deep pressure touch stimulation,’ which relaxes the nervous system. Pets can also help kids battle shyness. Children with autism who can avoid eye contact can find it far easier to gaze into the eyes of a friendly dog or cat.
Pets in Hospitals
Leading medical centers like the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital make the lives of patients a little easier thanks to visits from certified therapy dogs, which create a more positive atmosphere for children, families, and staff. Dogs simply approach patients, enabling them to enjoy ‘the present moment’ while relieving their minds of the stress associated with their medical condition. These dogs are all certified via official organizations like the Alliance of Therapy Dogs or Pet Partners. A 2015 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics on children with cancer found that therapeutic visits (during which children petted dogs, brushed their fur, watched them practicing tricks, and learned about dog breeds) had a powerful calming effect. This was made evident via measurements of participants’ blood pressure and pulse. Children who underwent AAT also showed lower anxiety levels than those who had not experienced this type of therapy.
Therapy Dogs and ADHD
A 2018 University of California-Irvine study showed that therapy dogs could effectively reduce the symptoms of ADHD. The study, undertaken on children aged between seven and nine years of age, compared the benefits of standard psychosocial interventions with the same approach augmented by the help of therapy dogs. The findings showed that those who had received AAT showed a reduction in inattentiveness and an improvement in social skills. Although the standard form of treatment also produced notable benefits, the AAT group fared significantly better after only eight weeks. They also demonstrated fewer behavioral problems. Researchers suggested that families should consider AAT as an alternative or adjunct therapy to medical treatments for ADHD.
Animals Improve Literacy
Simply having a dog around during reading sessions can improve a child’s literacy skills as found in a 2017 Tufts University study. Undertaken in second-grade students, the study showed that children who read to a therapy dog for half an hour just once a week had significantly improved attitudes to reading. In other words, the simple presence of dogs can provide motivation for children to complete a task that can be challenging. The findings are important because reading skills are associated with better academic performance and positive attitudes about school.
Animal-assisted therapy is currently used in a wide variety of settings, for children and adults alike. These include mobility issues such as cerebral palsy, autism, depression and anxiety, cancer, and ADHD. Simply being near animals improves a child’s physical and mental health and wellbeing. It calms stress and helps battle depression and anxiety. It also makes tasks like reading considerably more fun. Animals are also a highlight for many children who are hospitalized owing to diseases that can take some time to cure—including cancer. In many states across the nation, the visit of therapy pets is something that kids look forward to. However, the presence of dogs also benefits staff, families, and friends. Horses, too, can form a powerful bond with children, motivating them to carry out their exercises and serving as a form of support. Children can benefit from petting, brushing, caressing, and simply being with animals. They can, of course, also improve their reading skills by reading their favorite book to a canine companion.