Animals have always been an essential part of human evolution. Be it as a source of food and clothes for the hunter-gatherers or the means that plough our fields or even guard our valuables, animals have always rendered themselves indispensable to human needs.
While different species were required for their functionalities, a few evolved with us to be our favourites. Factually speaking, canines and felines top the list of most preferred animals. In other words, dogs and cats are ‘arguably’ the most accepted species by modern humans as companions or pets.
Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, was the first person to discover the therapeutic capabilities of animals in the 1800s. She noted that small animals helped patients, especially those suffering from chronic diseases, recover better.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, is one of the most famous proponents of animal therapy and even used his dog’s abilities to treat his patients. Interestingly, one of his dogs, a chow-chow called Jofi accompanied him during his therapy session.
Freud believed that Jofi could signal a patient’s mental state by how close she sat to the patient. The closer Jofi stayed the calmer the patient was. Freud would also use Jofi to facilitate communication with his patients. He found that many patients initially felt more comfortable talking through Jofi and that such interactions served as an ice-breaking session until they felt comfortable talking directly with him.
A Paw-istive Therapy
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), animal facilitated therapy or commonly called animal therapy is a type of alternative healing program. People suffering from physical, emotional or psychological trauma are made to interact with trained animals in presence of their handlers to help alleviate illness symptoms and facilitate recovery. It is a secondary form of treatment often accompanied by a mainstream procedure.
The most common species used for AAT are dogs, cats, horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, llamas and dolphins. It is not surprising that cats and dogs are the two most common ‘certified’ healers. While dogs have established their unrivalled dominance in this arena, cats seem to be edging close in recent years. The familiarity and ease of maintenance also make these two a chosen option compared to other therapy animals.
Animal therapy is based on the concept of human-animal bonds. This theory is based on the innate desire of people to interact with and relate to animals. Their ability to do this expedites calmness and optimism along with a myriad of other benefits. These include a heightened sense of social support, providing a source of motivation and stimulation, encouraging perception related to one’s health and a better balanced mental and emotional state.
A patient’s condition and the need for the therapy further determine its objective and the course of action. It can be used to provide comfort, reduce pain, improve motor or cognitive skills and enhance social or behavioural prowess.
Animal therapy might also help alleviate the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dementia, Alzheimer’s, autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia. Studies show that people going through rehabilitation for a drug use disorder may also benefit from animal therapy.
Dogs are known to be man’s best friends. There are innumerable ways in which our furry friends make our lives better. It’s been proved that a dog’s face possesses an ‘infant schema’, meaning that its high forehead, big eyes, short snout and floppy ears might have evolved to appeal to human’s innate responses.
These features are known as ‘social releasers’ and can elicit a human caregiver’s response. The desire to help and provide for someone makes us compassionate and kind.
According to a study, playing with or petting a dog lowers blood pressure and heart rate, slows breathing, and relaxes muscle tension almost immediately. You’d be surprised to know that looking into a dog’s eye can make you feel better instantly.
According to research, simply gazing into a dog’s eyes causes a tremendous spike in oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is a hormone that has the power to regulate our emotional responses and pro-social behaviours, including trust, empathy, processing of bonding cues, and positive communication.
Interactions with dogs can help you to maintain an optimistic perspective of life. Better yet, it also reduces the symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders.
For the cats part, they might not seem to be as expressive as dogs and like their personal space but it doesn’t mean that they have any less to offer. Therapy cats are trained to maintain a mild, tolerant demeanour and to stay calm even during their companion’s stressful periods or medical emergencies.
Studies show that spending time with cats can lower your blood pressure and stress levels. This creates a positive ripple effect decreasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases like strokes or heart attacks.
For cat lovers, purring is one of the most comforting sounds. While it certainly is a sign of a happy cat, purring has been proven to have healing abilities.
According to research, a cat’s purr can have a therapeutic ability on human bones and muscles. Purr creates vibrations at a frequency of 20-140 HZ, and studies have shown that frequencies in the 18-35 HZ range have a positive effect on joint mobility after injuries. Thus having a cat around while recovering from an accident has a two-fold benefit. Cats facilitate faster healing along with the release of calming chemicals in your body to lower the pain-induced stress and anxiety levels.
Furthermore, according to a study by The American Institute of Health, children under the age of one who were exposed to cats were seen as less likely to develop allergies later in their lives. This indicates a stronger immune system.
Word Of Caution
While animal therapy is being welcomed into the medical world at an ever-increasing rate, make sure to say yes only when you’re totally comfortable with it. Keep in mind that the therapy is supposed to help you.
Some people are allergic to animal fur while for others, animals instil fear and stress. Your doctor will always seek your approval before recommending this form of therapy. Choose what’s best for you. Remember, it’s for your recovery and you can revoke it anytime you wish after consulting your doctor.
Furthermore, at times, patients seem to develop a deep connection with their therapy animals which could make them possessive and be detrimental to their health causing other issues in the long run.
Animal therapy is yet another reminder to humankind that our existence is interwoven with the animal kingdom. We need their companionship as much as we love to believe that our presence is important to their being.
With loyalty will I devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care
- Florence Nightingale