pet therapy

The healing power of pets

The growing recognition of the positive impact that animals can have on the health and well-being of individuals has its roots in ancient civilizations, when humans began domesticating animals.

The social interaction and bonding-like behaviours between humans and their pets demonstrates the positive role animals play in human lives. This connection is taken a big step further when it comes to the formalized use of animals in therapy.

According to the Delta Society, the leading international organization for training this area, there are two types – Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) and Animal Assisted Therapies (AAT). While both are carried out by specially trained professionals, the only goal of animal-assisted activities is to provide opportunities for educational, recreational and/or therapeutic benefits to enhance an individual’s quality of life. In AAT, or ‘pet therapy’, animals that meet specific criteria are adopted in the treatment process to meet patient-specific goals. 

So how does one seek AAT and what might it involve? A mental health professional well-versed in animal-assisted therapies can assist in obtaining certification for a pet that aligns with a patient’s needs. Therapists may also collaborate with established animal therapy programmes like Animal Assisted Intervention International to facilitate access to trained therapy animals for individuals or groups. Modern approaches to AAT include activities such as the regular care of animals through tasks like feeding, grooming, and bathing.

In clinical settings, AAT involves bringing animals to rehabilitation centres, hospitals, and nursing homes and providing comforting visits whereby the interactions allow patients to build a sense of normalcy in an otherwise clinical setting. This has been linked with enhancing cognitive functioning and overall quality of life for the elderly and people of determination. In counselling settings, animals can be used to enable individuals to build trust and safety whereby the client has the opportunity to stroke and hug therapy dogs while the therapist reflects on the client’s feelings. In other instances, a therapist facilitates clients performing tricks with therapy animals to enhance frustration tolerance and build self-confidence. The presence of an animal during therapy sessions can create a safe and non-judgmental space, fostering trust and facilitating emotional expression. In educational settings, AAT has proven to be a valuable tool for promoting social skills and academic engagement among children. Reading programs involving therapy animals have shown significant improvements in reading, self-esteem, and motivation.

The benefits of this evidence-based intervention can be attributed to the physiological and psychological responses triggered by human-animal interactions. Research has shown that petting or being close to animals leads to the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with reduced stress and increased mood and relaxation. Moreover, animal interactions reduce cortisol levels and stimulate the production of endorphins and dopamine, enhancing feelings of happiness. They have also been associated with a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure. 

AAT has evolved into a powerful tool in modern healthcare, contributing to the holistic treatment of a wide range of individuals. As a complementary therapy, it serves to enhance the advantages provided by conventional therapy methods in both children and adults, effectively addressing a range of conditions such as stress, anxiety, loneliness, abusive behavior and depression. It has been used effectively with those diagnosed with autism, and ADHD, and also in vulnerable populations like cancer patients, stroke survivors and the elderly. 

AAT uses a range of animals,  the most common being dogs, horses, cats, rabbits and birds. In the UAE, Sense Animal Therapy and the Equestrian Association for People of Determination have been effectively running AAT for individuals with diverse needs. At Expo 2020, the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children launched a program using animal therapy to assist survivors of abuse.

AAT harnesses the power of the human-animal bond to promote physical, emotional, and social well-being. While AAT has shown great promise, it is important to consider the individual needs and preferences of both humans and animals involved. This therapy may not be suitable for those that possess aversions, fears or allergies towards animals. Proper training and certification of therapy animals, as well as the establishment of ethical guidelines, are crucial for ensuring the well-being of both patients and animals.

By recognizing and harnessing the healing potential of animal companions, new avenues for promoting health and happiness in individuals can be unlocked. is for every body and mind in the UAE. This magazine is all about moderation, making small changes, little additions and the odd subtraction.



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