Rabbits and dogs visiting nursing homes and even hospitals, horses and dolphins as therapists for severely disabled children and the seriously ill – a therapeutic approach is slowly gaining acceptance. Animal therapy has been scientifically researched since about the early 1960s, but animals were used to positively affect people’s health much earlier.
Dog, cat and Co. support therapies
Very slowly and carefully, Klara M., 82, touches the golden retriever dog Senta on the head, strokes the silky coat – and smiles for the first time in months. Klara M. lives in a home for the elderly, where animal visits are used specifically for therapeutic purposes. The association “Tiere helfen Menschen e. V.” (Animals Help People) has organized this visitation program. In the meantime, the initiative has established numerous contacts with people throughout Germany who organize such dog visitation groups. Some facilities have their own pet cat, which is deliberately used in the care of the elderly. And in other retirement homes, residents are even allowed to keep their own pet, unless there are medical reasons, such as allergies, for not doing so.
Animal therapy in the hospital
At the anthroposophical community hospital in Herdecke (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany), sheep are herded and cared for in the clinic’s own meadow by patients who do not have to stay in bed during the day. Men and women suffering from multiple sclerosis sit on horses – hippotherapy is the name of this form of physiotherapy, which not only addresses nerves, muscles and joints, but also increasingly the emotions. In Herdecke, seriously ill children with chronic diseases are even prescribed contact with horses as “mental medicine.”
History of animal-assisted therapies
Animal-assisted therapy has been scientifically researched since about the early 1960s, but animals were used to positively affect people’s health much earlier. A famous example is “York Retreat” in England, founded in 1792 by William Tuke. It was an institution for the mentally ill, who were allowed to tend gardens and keep small animals. In Germany, animals were deliberately used in the 19th century at the epileptic center in Bethel – to calm and occupy the patients housed there.
Possible uses for animals for therapeutic purposes
Current examples of uses for therapy animals are numerous:
- In the “Quality Manual Living with Dementia” of the Kuratorium Deutsche Altershilfe, a dog manages to “open doors” to dementia patients in nursing homes who hardly respond to people.
- Specially trained dogs help disabled people to master their lives autonomously.
- Behaviorally disabled children develop self-confidence in dealing with four-legged friends and learn to reduce contact fears.
- In about 140 German hospitals, specially trained animals are tolerated in hospital wards or used in therapies.
Meanwhile, the Robert Koch Institute advocates the keeping of animals in care facilities and visiting services in hospitals: “However, if you weigh the risks and benefits against each other, the positive impact on well-being by keeping pets is clearly higher. Therefore, it makes sense to … Allow animals under defined conditions also in nursing facilities and hospitals.”
Animals in life crises
Professor Reinhold Bergler of the University of Bonn proved in a study that cats can help in coping with life crises. Of 150 people, all of whom were in an acute crisis situation, half lived without a pet, while the other half lived with a cat. Of the people without pets, nearly two-thirds sought the help of a professional psychotherapist; of the cat owners, none. Cats, Bergler explained, provide comfort as well as joy in life and serve as a catalyst in dealing with a problem. While those without animals repressed the critical events, cat owners – after the naturally occurring negative feelings at the beginning of a crisis – were able to actively process what they had experienced and developed a more positive attitude.
Pet owners live healthier lives
A 1992 Australian study shows that pet owners have lower health risk factors, such as elevated blood lipids and blood pressure. They are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease – a result of regular exercise.For people prone to frequent mood swings or depression, animals can even provide therapeutic help.
Animals influence emotions
Methods such as hippotherapy are now uncontroversial in research. Especially in cases of spasticity resulting from early childhood brain damage, multiple sclerosis and other diseases of the central nervous system, the effects are clearly observable. Studies and observations on the use of dogs and cats in psychiatry and geriatric care prove that animals always manage to make people laugh. Moods brighten and depression is counteracted.
Responsibility for an animal has a stabilizing effect
Animals increase the motivation of people, stimulate them to activities and regulate the daily routine. By their mere presence, they displace feelings of loneliness and can fill emotional gaps, such as those caused by the loss of a close relative. It has also been proven that taking responsibility for an animal keeps people from committing suicide. It is precisely this responsibility that has a stabilizing effect, especially on older people, as it structures the daily routine. Moreover, the duties associated with an animal must be performed, regardless of one’s mood and state of mind at the moment.