There is an increasing understanding of the role animal companions can play in our mental and physical well-being. On a basic level, regular interaction with an animal companion is known to improve our emotional state, cognitive function and social ease. Living with animals can improve mood, bring calm, and lower blood pressure. Caring for an animal companion can help the elderly by providing exercise and companionship. Children exposed to pets can learn responsibility and compassion.
In addition, more structured forms of interaction with animals can bring added benefits in a therapeutic setting.
Animal Assisted Therapy is any form of therapy that includes animals as part of the therapeutic process. It has been documented as being successful in easing the tension a new patient might feel as the patient sees how the therapist and animal companion relate to each other, as well as by providing a model for developing healthy relationships.
We have all heard of the effect animals have on nursing home residents, easing boredom and isolation, providing comfort and play. Traumatized veterans can find emotional and spiritual stability with a support animal. Those suffering from a physical disability or deformity will find non-judgmental acceptance more readily with an animal than with a human.
Because animals are highly sensitive by nature, their behavior can provide immediate feedback on social cues. When a patient feels calm, the therapy animal feels calm. When a patient feels agitated, the animal will exhibit agitation, often allowing the patient to more easily notice and take control of his or her emotions. He or she can learn how to monitor and adjust his/her behavior accordingly.
Another benefit of animal therapy is healthy touch. Where touch between the therapist and a client would be inappropriate in a therapeutic setting, allowing the client to hold or pet an animal provides comfort and a feeling of security and safety.
Children in crisis will especially respond positively to animal therapies. They may receive safe affection and attention from a therapy animal that they have not received from family members. They can often more freely express emotions and develop healthy communication styles by relating to the animal.
Soul Wisdom Therapy’s founder Deborah Cohen has her own “Feline Assistant,” Dr. Maxwell Katz in her office during therapy sessions with her clients. Max has a very calming presence. At times, Max will stand or sit close to clients who are crying or unhappy. He often sits in his catbed looking like he’s asleep but he is actually sending healing energy to clients–except for the occasional catnap. He also enjoys a little scratch or rub on his head when the client comes into or leaves the office.