Imagine this. You are at a hospital and the doctor suggests using animal therapy as part of your treatment. You agree and soon they bring in a dog and its handler. You are asked to pet the dog and play with it for some time and ask questions to the trainer. Just 15-20 minutes of interaction will cause some notable changes around you. You notice that you have calmed down and are now relaxed. The dog leaves you feeling much better than you were before.
Humans have had animals as their companions since ancient times. Historic archaeology depicts how humans were often found buried with puppies cradled with them around 10000 BC. Studies also found remains of an African wildcat buried with humans in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Similarly, there are many more clear pieces of evidence to substantiate these close bonds between man and animals.
Animal therapy is a guided process of intervention used for recovery among humans suffering from various mental and physical illnesses. It is formally known as Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). This form of therapy has proved to be quite beneficial and shows excellent signs of recovery among patients. With the increasing mental health disorders and expensive therapy, pets could be one of the easiest ways to cope. It reduces blood pressure and cortisol, a stress hormone. It improves our cardiovascular health and releases endorphins and oxytocin, reducing anxiety and depressive signs and boosts the patient’s feel-good hormones. They have proven to be a great source of entertainment and distraction for the patients. The primary objective of animal therapy is to boost the patient’s morale and encourage them to continue therapy.
Animal therapy is often used for patients suffering from dementia, heart diseases, strokes, cancer, and young children suffering from autism and other disabilities. Animal therapy is largely common in cancer hospitals and old age homes mostly through dogs and cats. The type of canine chosen depends on the patient. If it is an active child who likes to play, a friendly energetic dog is chosen for the child to play fetch and other games or walk around. If the patient is sick and in pain, a calm dog who will simply lay with you and cuddle is chosen. For many patients, animal therapy is useful to conduct physical therapy. Petting a dog is known to improve sensory and motor skills and walking a dog improves balance and coordination. For many patients, these animals help patients in taking the first important step: getting out of bed.
Several colleges and universities in the United States have therapy dogs on campus to meet the mental health needs of college students. College can be quite stressful for many students and this helps them cope better with various situations. Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School have resident therapy dogs in their libraries for students to interact and spend time with.
The benefits of animal therapy have received popular acclaim around the globe with the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Proving beneficial for patients in isolation and quarantine, hospitals and mental health advocates have been encouraging people to adopt pets or try pet therapy. Since it was proven that covid-19 cannot be contracted through dogs, an increase in pet adoption has seen a boom for the soothing relief that they provide.
Many often refrain from seeking animal therapy due to the fear of animals and hygiene factors. However, therapy animals are certified only if they are of a certain temperament. Therapy animals are gentle and friendly and do not cause any harm to the patients. They are given a bath and brushed before the visit. The handlers accompanying them also carry alcohol sanitizers for the patient’s use before and after physical contact with the pets.
Animal therapy has not received much recognition in India as other western countries. There are very few centers in India that provide animal therapy. A few of them are:
1. Animal Angels Foundation, Mumbai
It is India’s first organization that started working in Animal Assisted Therapy. Started by clinical psychologists, it aims to enrich individuals with animal therapy. They work with schools and mental health centers, conduct workshops, and offer services to individuals as well.
2. Manav Foundation, Mumbai
Working alongside Animals Angels Foundation, Manav Foundation aims to improve interaction and communication for interpersonal relationships. They have a cat ‘Simba’ who is a co-therapist for the group and individual sessions.
3. Wag-Ville, Bangalore
Wag-Ville offers animal therapy under their ‘Paws and Hooves Project’ for individuals with special needs such as Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome, ADHD, and Autism.
4. FurBall Story, Delhi
FurBall Story is an initiative to make Animal therapy more accessible for individuals. You can book a session with them on their website and they will bring the pets to your home, office, or school for a fun interactive session.
Animal therapy is an upcoming sector in the country with huge potential. However, given financial constraints of therapy, adopting a pet will prove to be equally beneficial. Pet owners across the world will testify how their pets reduce anxiety and stress and are always up for a good cuddle session and play. Coming back home to be showered with affection and love is one of the favorite things of a pet owner. Their cute faces and goofy grins must be enough to convince you to try pet therapy or animal therapy. Moreover, the warmth received by them builds enough trust for patients to reciprocate and makes them feel better and strengthens them.