It seems that human beings are natural care-givers. We thrive when we have others to love and look after, especially pets. And when we are troubled, we often turn to them for comfort and reassurance. Recent studies even suggest that pet owners experience less stress (and less stress-related illness) than non pet owners.
Because of our affection for them, animals have often been used to help us with healing.
In ancient times, it is said, if people felt in danger of going insane, they would carry dogs around with them. Tea merchant William Tuke was so disturbed by the harsh regimes of insane asylums in late 18th Century England that he founded the pioneering York Retreat, to care for mentally ill people in a kinder and more compassionate way. Among his new, enlightened treatments was giving rabbits and poultry to patients to look after, so that they could care and be responsible for them. The York Retreat was the forerunner of many uses of animals to help with therapy, which has continued up to the present day.
Advances in pet-assisted therapy
Since the 1980s in particular, knowledge in the field of pet-assisted therapy has considerably advanced, and it has become a professional discipline. There are two main branches: Animal-Assisted Therapy and Animal-Assisted Activities
An example is the case of a three-year old boy who refused to learn to walk or talk. He did not respond to the usual rewards of toys, music, food or juice.
However, it was found that the encouragement and interest provided by a cockatiel was enough to encourage him to begin speaking. His first word was "bird."
The little boy then learned to walk with the help of a trained dog. A graded therapy program culminated in the eleventh session. He took his first two steps - towards the dog. By the end of that session the boy had walked two meters so that he could pet the therapy dog.
Hospitals & Other Institutions
People living in institutions, such as residential and nursing homes, find themselves in artificial homes where daily life is very controlled. This can lead to feelings of depression and isolation.
When animals join them, however, both staff and patients benefit. It gives them an opportunity, to play, make friends and cuddle. In 1992, about 70% of the hospices in the UK and Ireland who responded to a survey reported having resident pets.
When it is not possible to have resident animals in an institution, such as a hospital, pet visiting programs have met with great success. Volunteers regularly bring in their pets, which can give great pleasure to ill and bed-ridden people. The pets are screened to make sure they're in good health and well behaved.
Passive pet therapy
Perhaps the best-known passive use of animals is the placement of an aquarium or small caged birds in medical or dental waiting rooms, workplaces, or residential homes. Patients do not handle the animals, but are found to benefit from their presence in the room.