A Learning and Healing Experience
“The little furry buggers are just deep, deep wells you throw all your emotions into.”
Animals have had a long tradition of providing company to humans; they have a natural knack for never being unkind, never saying too much, and for always being happy to see their favorite humans. Pet therapy has been used for years in nursing homes, rehabilitative settings, and children medical and psychiatric wards for the last twenty years. The popularity of these programs increases each year. It seems that “the little furry buggers” are irresistible to the majority of people with stressful, medical and psychiatric conditions.
Why Animals Are So Irresistible
In 1971, the commonly quoted statistic that “93% of all human communication is nonverbal” was first stated by a Dr. Albert Mehrabian, in his book, Silent Messages. The accuracy of the 93:7 statistic has been questioned ever since. Modern communication and lingual theorists now believe that the more accurate number is 60-80%. Even with this newly accepted figure, one can assume part of the attraction between humans and their pets involves non-verbal communication, since no human has mastered the language of dogs or cats, thus far. It is commonly believed that pets, especially dogs and cats, have an intuitive nature that is evident in their non-verbal cues, like tail wagging, purring, or gazing.
Whether you believe animals are truly intuitive beings or that humans simply project their own emotions onto the interpretation of the animal’s actions, does not have much impact on the positive psychological effects of pet therapy. Specialists in alcohol and substance abuse treatment have found the following psychological benefits of pet therapy in treated patients:
- Reduction in anger
- Reduction in anxiety and tension
- Increase in social functioning
- Increase in self-esteem and empowerment
- Elevated mood
- Increase in feelings of trust and patience
Additionally, the Center for Disease Control has recognized the following physical benefits to pet therapy:
- Lower blood pressure
- Decreased pain
- lower heart rate
- Increased opportunities for exercise and socialization
What is Pet Therapy and How Does It Aid Recovery?
Several organizations specialize in providing pet therapy services; the most recognized organization is the ASPCA, a national non-profit animal rescue and shelter organization. Typically, the owner of the dog or cat undergo partner training to ensure proper safety, control, and behavior for therapeutic socializing. The human-pet partners then visit treatment facilities, hospital units, classrooms and other public places that invite them; most of the therapeutic pets are dogs, but some cats are have also become therapy pets. Some of the pets do tricks, but their main function is to simply, “do what they do best”: provide comfort, friendship, and smiles to those in need.
Many addiction treatment centers, including the Hazelden Betty Ford Center, have incorporated pet therapy into their residential and outpatient programs. Pet therapy, however, does not have to be provided formally to be effective. Buying a pet and committing to the responsibility of nurturing and providing for it can have be therapeutic and educational; it can be an opportunity to form a healthy co-dependent relationship. The positive learning and healing experience of forming a bond with an animal can help recovering individuals maintain sobriety and increase their quality of life.