Animals to the Rescue — Assisted Therapy & Unconditional Love
Over the years, I relocated several times for education and work in India. On every street, I found a dog who became a companion. They knew my schedule and would wait at their spot with wagging tongues and tails. One would climb the stairs to my house because why not! At times, they weren’t looking for food, just petting.
Once, a cat came to live on the balcony with her two kittens. The landlord wasn’t happy. I was. It was a riot with those two little munchkins. Cat mom would often take a nap, asking me to keep an eye on them. All these strays were and still are, my doses of instant happiness.
Turns out, science agrees. Petting an animal promotes the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin — all mood-elevating hormones.
I have always believed in the healing power of nature and by extension, animals too. While my spiritual side believes in their omens and symbolism, my human side knows that healing works in combination with medications as prescribed.
History of Animal-assisted therapy
It is not a new discovery that having animals can be an important part of the mental healing process for humans in therapy. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) dates back to ancient Greece, where they used horses to lift the spirits of severely ill patients. No other documented mention of AAT occurred until the 1600s, when physicians again turned to horses to improve their patients' mental health.
Sigmund Freud, a highly influential neurologist and psychologist, in the later part of his life, around the 1920s, provided canine-assisted therapy with his Chinese Chow, Jofi, and believed that dogs have a calming effect on people.
In the 1940s, the American Red Cross, a non-profit humanitarian organization that provides emergency assistance and disaster relief, used farm animals to help war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other war-related traumas. In the early 1960s, Boris Levinson, a child psychologist, presented a paper at an American Psychological Association meeting based on his clinical experience. Levinson went on to author Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy and became ‘the father of AAT’.
Numerous studies have shown that pets and animal-assisted therapies have a positive effect on our physical and mental health. For example, animal-assisted therapies have been shown to ease aggression in patients with Alzheimer’s, improve the response of kids on the autism spectrum, and help the elderly struggling with loneliness. Animal-assisted therapy has also been shown to improve physical health by reducing blood pressure and stress hormones along with improving mental health by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. A study at American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions, 2005, concluded that even short-term exposure to dogs has beneficial physiological and psychosocial effects on patients.
Animal-assisted therapy has just begun to gain popularity in metro cities in India, partly because mental health itself was rather an obscure concept, in small towns and even cities, not so long ago. I remember getting discouraged when I expressed interest in studying psychology in the early 2000s, hearing “There is hardly any scope…”
If I had only known animals were involved, I would have protested with much more determination regarding this choice of career.
Recently, I connected with Radhika Nair, who co-founded the ‘Animal Angels Foundation’ in Mumbai, India, a non-profit organization that has introduced the field of Animal Assisted Interventions in India. She and Rohini Fernandes, both clinical psychologists and certified AAT practitioners, launched the foundation in 2005 and have since worked with numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs), rehabs, schools for children with autism, the elderly, people with physical disabilities, and child sexual assault survivors. They mostly train dogs for their therapies but had a rescue cat too, who was equally purr-fect in healing her human patients.
Radhika had a bag full of heartwarming healing stories. One child who had previously suffered abuse was not able to trust adults. A therapy dog had helped by being the one whom he could rely on. Later, the trust circle embraced an adult with the dog and slowly, the circle expanded to other adults too.
In the US, many states allow specially trained dogs in court to help calm child abuse survivors while testifying. There is something innate about the bond between pets and children. A 2017 study by Cambridge found that a child’s bond with their dog is even stronger than with their siblings.
Radhika also told me about one of her clients, aged 22, who lost his ability to walk after an accident due to a spinal injury. His mental health was in shambles. Severe depression led him to have no interest in his physiotherapy sessions or even personal hygiene. Radhika and her team used to visit the hospital he was admitted to for therapy sessions.
At first, the young man showed no interest in the pets. He used to gaze with a blank stare when Angel, a Golden retriever, played tug of war with other patients as a part of therapy. Gradually, he opened up to play with her. His muscles were extremely weak, and Angel won every time. One morning when Angel reported for her duty, she was pleasantly surprised. This human was eagerly waiting for her after an early shower and his physiotherapy session. Apparently, he wanted to win in today’s tug of war. It was a moment full of happy tears and the start of a healing journey. Angel has passed over the rainbow bridge since then but the name lives on forever in their organization.
Aren’t all pets therapy animals?
Though the animals don’t care for that label and continue to bring joy to our lives, therapy animals are specifically trained with positive reinforcement and sensitized to help patients in different age groups and with different types of difficulties. Not every animal has the temperament to work in this way. It is crucial to match the temperament of the animal with the patient.
Without training, a pet might qualify as an emotional support animal if prescribed by a licensed mental health practitioner in some countries. Emotional support animals provide therapeutic benefits by companionship, unlike trained therapy dogs who are trained to socially adjust to various people and provide calming, psychological and physiological healing.
It might be argued that there is not enough evidence to support the claim that these therapies work. Some experts have raised concerns that using emotional support animals might harm both the animal and the person undergoing therapy. For example, the person undergoing treatment for anxiety or phobias might work well with emotional support animals in the short term, but if the dependency isn’t controlled, it might cause harm in the long run. Radhika raises a valid point against these concerns:
“It is a complementary therapy — you use it in congruence with other therapies. Recommendations and results are dependent on the skills of the therapist too”
Regarding concerns on whether animals, particularly our canine friends, are under stress doing this healing job, a study reported in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 2018 measured salivary cortisol of 26 dogs in animal-assisted interventions across five different hospitals, involving hundreds of patients, and found that therapy dogs aren’t stressed by their work and might actually enjoy it.
Just for humans?
You might be surprised to know that some conservation zoos calm cheetahs’ anxiety by giving them support dogs. The San Diego zoo has been doing this for three decades.
It is remarkable how our furry friends can heal us in ways we never anticipate. We all break and heal multiple times in our lives. I’ve often found nature and animal companionship to be intensely cathartic. Maybe because love exists there in its purest form.
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
— ANATOLE FRANCE