Blog post

Using pets in therapy: The benefits for mental health

Therapy animals are becoming increasingly common in a variety of domains, now even on aeroplanes to ease travel stress. Dr Christine Rhodes, Lecturer in Health and Social care at the University of Derby Online Learning and Certified Addictions Counsellor, talks about the benefits of pet therapy and how it works.

By Dr Christine Rhodes - 15 May 2018

What is pet therapy?

Also referred to as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), pet therapy is a guided, casual interaction between an individual, a trained animal and the animal’s handler. The individual may be in recovery from an ailment, seeking comfort or simply engaging light recreation. Pet therapy is often, but not necessarily, used to complement other traditional forms of therapy. Cats, dogs and horses are most commonly used, although any animal that meets specific screening criterial can be used, such as reptiles, birds and small animals like guinea pigs.

The benefits of pet therapy

Interaction with pets is associated with decreased depression and increased socialisation in elderly persons, fewer incidents of behavioural problems in children with emotional and developmental disorders, and the reduction of high blood pressure and poor cardiovascular health in adults, through the release of the body’s natural endorphins. Following a recent pet therapy session I conducted with university staff, attendees reported an average of a 55% mood elevation, and used words such as healing, calming, soul-soothing and blissful to describe their experience.

Increasingly, the healing potential of animals as a form of therapy is becoming apparent. Last October, therapy dogs were flown in to comfort the survivors and families at the shooting where 58 people were killed at an outdoor music festival in Florida. Nineteen ‘comfort’ dogs attended a vigil for the victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida this year. Pet programmes are becoming increasing fixtures in many human service organisations across the UK, including the NHS.

How does pet therapy work in counselling?

Counselling involves the facilitation of healing, primarily through alliance, or relationship. Individuals suffering from mental health conditions are often mistrustful of human contact, whereas their experience of pets can be that of companionship and nurturance. During lapses in human relationships, pets can provide emotional support which is often vital for survival. Animals can significantly enhance the counselling process by increasing the client’s sense of safety and providing opportunities for insight, growth and healing.

Animals who are used in therapy engage in a rigorous training and testing process. Before they reach 14 weeks, therapy puppies are taken to hospital grounds, for example, several times to familiarise them with ambulance sounds, wheelchairs, and the general hustle and bustle. This information is coded and accepted for future use. Another important component of the training is the ‘leave’ command, so that the therapy dog does not eat stray pills on the ground or try to eat the unfinished meal on the patient’s bedside table. Therapy pets are frequently seen in a variety of locations such as care homes, a wide range of educational organisations, mental health institutions and within correctional facilities.

Pets and addictions counselling

My first experience with the power of pets in therapy took place about 12 years ago when I was working at a drug and alcohol treatment centre just south of Portland, Oregon. ‘Bob’ was a client who loathed being in treatment. One day, I had my neighbour’s dog, Winston, with me. ‘Bob’ saw Winston, and the guarded walls and years of defence mechanisms dropped. From that day forward, we were able to communicate on an entirely different level.

Many recovering addicts and alcoholics attribute their success in maintaining a relationship with an animal.  Success is associated with an improved therapeutic alliance when pets are involved and a reduction in patient anxiety about the treatment process in general, leading to increased adherence to the recommended treatment plan and increased retention for the duration of treatment.

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About the author

Dr Christine Rhodes
Lecturer in Health and Social Care - University of Derby Online Learning

I am a Lecturer in Health and Social Care with the University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL), and a practising addictions counsellor. My research interests include substance abuse and sex addiction. I completed my dissertation on Alcohol Use Disorder and the Sibling Relationship, and have a special interest in understanding addiction as a family disorder.