Animals as therapy – what you need to know

If you’re the owner of a pet, you’ll understand the joy and companionship that an animal can bring. Not only that, but you’ll probably have also gleaned a number of wellbeing benefits too – from walks outside with a dog, to the calming effects of stroking a cat. Pets offer us a certain therapy that money can’t buy. But have you ever considered that your pet could support the wellbeing of others too?

“If you have a cat or a dog with the right temperament, they could make a fantastic therapy animal,” says Matthew Robinson, National Volunteer & Events Manager at Pets As Therapy. “These animals visit hospitals, schools, care homes and many more establishments and make a real difference to the people there.”

Pets As Therapy
Credit: Pets As Therapy

Ready to share the love? Read on to discover how you and your pet could provide much-needed support and therapy to those who need it most.

Bringing back memories

We all anecdotally know the positive effects of having a pet. But it’s something that has been highly documented in scientific research too.

One recent study by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan revealed that regular visits from therapy dogs helped to improve memory recollection in senior war veterans. The study, published in the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, also reported links to positive impacts on wellbeing, including reductions in loneliness and stress.

And it’s something Matthew has encountered in real life too.

“In a care home setting, our therapy animals will often see people living with dementia,” he says. “These people often don’t engage in conversation. But, when they meet the animals, they begin to relax and reflect on memories.

“Relatives will say that they’ve not heard them talking like that in years. It shows you the effect an animal can have.”

Animals offer non-judgmental listening. This means that many people often feel far more confident talking to a pet than they might a human. Opening up in this way helps to support cognitive function while making a new friendly companion.

Supporting children

Pets As Therapy
Credit: Pets As Therapy

Along with helping in care homes, animals can also have a profound effect on supporting children. A 2010 study from the University of South Florida found that therapy dogs improved reading engagement in children with learning disabilities. Children with a therapy dog were much more likely to continue reading for a longer period of time than those without an animal to support them.

“Having a dog to read to is a really great way to support children with literacy problems,” says Matthew. “We can probably all remember having to read something in front of the class as a child, and it can be really nerve-wracking. Therapy animals allow children to read out loud to someone without judgement. It enables them to build their confidence and develop their literacy skills.”

As well as supporting children’s education, animals can also help to soothe fears around hospital procedures.

“Volunteers and dogs will often go to children’s wards on hospitals,” explains Matthew. “Spending time with a dog helps to take their mind off being in hospital. We can also use animals to explain how different procedures work – for example demonstrating what an X-ray would be like. It helps to show them it doesn’t hurt and it’s nothing to be afraid of.”

How to get involved

While it can take doctors and therapists years of training to offer people support, it’s something that comes naturally to many animals. And, if you’re keen to get involved, there are just a few simple boxes that your pet needs to tick.

“There’s really no training involved,” says Matthew. “If you have a dog or a cat with the right temperament, you can register with Pets As Therapy to be assessed.

“We like to see that you have a good relationship and can communicate well. We also like to understand how your animal behaves with others. Assuming you pass this assessment, your animal could soon be providing therapy to those who need it most.”

And there’s never been a better time to get involved. While assessments and therapy visits are currently on pause due to lockdown, it’s the perfect time to continue building a strong bond with your pet. You can also explore the opportunities that Pets As Therapy has to offer. Plus, there’s plenty of ways to get involved if you don’t have a pet but would still like to support the charity.

For the price of a coffee, you could help place a visiting volunteer team in a school helping many children improve their literacy skills – head to the Just Giving page to find out more. Plus learn more about the charity at the Pets As Therapy website.

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