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Dr. Karen Becker

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How Pets Can Help With Psychotherapy

Posted: 11/ 1/2011 9:49 am

You might be wondering how the presence of a cat or dog in a counseling office can speed the progress of therapy for some patients.

I mean, it seems obvious animal lovers who are therapy patients would probably be comforted having a dog or cat to pet while they talk about their problems.

But how exactly does that translate to faster breakthroughs in the therapeutic process?

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is the brainchild of Boris Levinson, a psychologist who back in the 1950s discovered purely by accident his dog Jingles was able to engage an autistic child in a way humans had not.

Since the late 1970s, the Delta Society has been the most recognized name in the field of AAT. Dogs are the most frequently used therapy animals, but the society also trains cats, birds, rabbits, horses, donkeys, llamas and even pigs and snakes in their program.

According to Delta's research, when people hold and stroke an animal -- or in some cases just see one -- a number of healthful physical and psychological transitions occur, including:

• Lowered blood pressure and a feeling of calm

• The ability to be more extroverted and verbal

• Decreased loneliness and increased self-esteem

How Animals Help in Psychotherapeutic Settings

Susan Lee Bady, a clinical social worker who uses her two cats in her practice, says her pets serve a number of different functions, including:

• Facilitating emotional expression

• Allowing touching

• Encouraging spontaneity and fun

• Providing unconditional love of the sort never found in human relationships

Bady's patients report feelings of peacefulness and serenity when they watch the cats cuddle and groom each other. This feeling is enhanced when a cat jumps into a patient's lap.

Some patients speak more freely while holding or petting one of the cats. Patients who are out of touch with their emotions are sometimes able to identify and understand them by watching the behavior of the cats.

Patients with trust issues learn to trust Bady by watching her with her cats. Bady's pets, like all cats, are independent souls, and there's often no rhyme or reason for what they do or when they decide to do it.

This independence and lack of predictability can help an extremely needy or insecure patient cope better with what she perceives as personal slights in her everyday life. If, for example, a patient of Bady's feels the cats don't like her because they won't sit in her lap, Bady can use her reaction to open a discussion with the patient about her high degree of neediness and the problems it might be creating for her.

Other Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy Applications

There's an amazing array of literature available on the different ways animals are being used to help children and adults with psychiatric illness, mood disorders, developmental and learning disabilities, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental and emotional challenges.

• A study of anxiety ratings in hospitalized psychiatric patients concluded that animal-assisted therapy sessions significantly reduced anxiety levels for patients with psychotic, mood and other disorders.

• A study published in the Journals of Gerontology showed that animal-assisted therapy reduced loneliness in residents of long-term care facilities -- especially for those folks who previously owned pets.

• A study conducted at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University concluded children with pervasive development disorders (PDD) who lack social communication abilities, "exhibited a more playful mood, were more focused, and were more aware of their social environments when in the presence of a therapy dog."

• In a report titled "Animal-Assisted Therapy in Psychiatric Rehabilitation," researchers studied the effect of AAT on a group of male and female psychiatric inpatients. By the fourth week of the study, "patients in the AAT group were significantly more interactive with other patients, scored higher on measures of smiles and pleasure, were more sociable and helpful with others, and were more active and responsive to surroundings."

Aaron Katcher, M.D., a psychiatrist and emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania when he was interviewed for this PsychiatryOnline.org article, points to additional evidence of the success of animal-assisted therapy in controlled studies, as follows:

• Depressed patients had increased socialization and decreased depression.

• Children with severe ADHD and conduct disorder had decreased aggressive behavior and improved attention.

• Patients with autism or developmental disabilities had increased socialization and improved attention.

• Patients with Alzheimer's disease had improved attention and decreased aggression and anger.

According to Katcher, there is also clinical and anecdotal evidence that patients with dissociative disorders and agoraphobia are able to decrease anxiety and increase social skills when they have companion animals.

Other research has pointed to more health benefits of pets -- click through this slideshow from HuffPost blogger Joan Liebmann-Smith, Ph.D.:

They Can Help Your Allergies
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Pets can help prevent eczema and some allergies in children. Babies and toddlers who live with dogs -- but not cats -- have lower rates of childhood eczema than those raised without dogs. And young children who've had a cat or dog since their first year of life have fewer pet allergies than other kids their age.

Dr. Karen Becker is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. You can visit her site at: MercolaHealthyPets.com.

Her goal is to help you create wellness in order to prevent illness in the lives of your pets. This proactive approach seeks to save you and your pet from unnecessary stress and suffering by identifying and removing health obstacles even before disease occurs. Unfortunately, most veterinarians in the United States are trained to be reactive. They wait for symptoms to occur, and often treat those symptoms without addressing the root cause.

By reading Dr. Becker's information, you'll learn how to make impactful, consistent lifestyle choices to improve your pet's quality of life.