Pet therapy is quickly gaining followers, and it is not uncommon to see cats and dogs in hospitals, while pigs and ducks have been spotted at airports. Animal lovers state that pets assist recovery and reduce pain. But does evidence support it?
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Animals were first used in psychiatric asylums in the 18th century, but in the recent years we are witnessing a veritable explosion of animal therapy, touted as the next big thing in holistic medicine. How can pets help?
What animals can (supposedly) do:
- Some studies indeed show that interaction with pets allows to reduce the perception of pain, especially after surgeries.
- Animals can have an anti-stress effect, reducing anxiety and even PTSD, helping to overcome the effects of a psychological trauma. This way, pets can “treat” war veterans and people suffering from mental disease, as well as victims of sexual abuse.
- By walking pets and playing with them, patients can slowly regain mobility when recovering after a stroke or an accident.
- Interaction with an animal can take a person’s mind off addictive thoughts and uncontrollable desires, such as in the case of eating disorders.
- We should not forget about traditional service dogs that assist blind people.
Can they really do all this?
Please note that apart from “professional” service dogs, animals involved in pet therapy do not undergo any rigorous training. It is more about the character: the animal has to be gentle, patient, and enjoy communicating with people. For this reason it is not just dogs that can become pet therapists, but also cats, ponies, donkeys, ducks, pigs, hamsters, and so on.
Undoubtedly, animal lovers enjoy petting dogs and cats and feel good around them, but can this be said about all people? And just because a certain animal can help a certain patient, does it mean it can help all patients? While the zealots of pet therapy write numerous articles that begin with “it is now proven beyond doubt that pets are good for you”, many issues in fact remain.
- So far there is no convincing evidence that pet therapy works: most studies use small samples and do not control for other factors (see this review, for example);
- Risk of infection – your dog may indeed be extremely clean for a dog, but all animals carry bacteria; and in a hospital, where they are petted by different patients, they will carry bacteria from one sick person to another. At the same time, hospital patients, especially children and those recovering after surgeries, have very weak immune systems. So far there are no reported cases of infection through an animal, but they may simply not be registered as such.
- Animal stress – it is not easy for a cat or dog to be a pet therapist, getting touched, hugged, and grabbed by dozens of people every day. For this reasons, many assistance dogs work in two-hour shifts.
- Abuse of documents – persons who would like to have their emotional support animal with them all the time (to prevent anxiety attacks, for example), including on a plane, need a special document signed by a psychiatrist. As the demand rises, numerous fraudulent firms produce such documents on demand for a fee, which can result in many fake assistance animals.
Like so many alternative medical practices, pet therapy remains controversial. Perhaps it would help to have your dog with you while waiting at the dentist’s office, but for someone right after a surgery such a pet helper can be dangerous. As in all things, balance is the key.