Animals have an amazing effect on humans. As a testament to their effect on humans, domesticated dogs have been around for over 10,000 years. Animals have provided companionship and many other intangible benefits such as offering therapeutic support for over 150 years. Companionship is key, whether it is a dog, a cat, or even a snake.
Therapy Dogs and Autism
While you may associate service dogs with other health conditions, evidence is emerging that they may have also have other benefits, particularly for children with autism. A study by the Université de Montreal found that having trained service dogs lowered stress hormone levels in autistic children. These therapy dogs had a positive effect on what researchers called problematic behavior. Dogs are improving the quality of life for some autistic children.
A study by the University of Missouri-Columbia found that autistic children in homes with pets were more assertive and had improved social skills. Other pets including rabbits and cats offered similar benefits. Researchers have referred to pets as “social lubricants” that opens up new ways to communicate with other children. After all, who can resist a cute puppy?
Cats for Therapy
Autistic children can also benefit from any number of therapy animals. Cats are another commonly used therapy animal. According to the Interactive Autism Network, cats can act as a bridge for communication between autistic children and their families. The presence of a cat within a home can encourage social interactions and increase attention spans in autistic children.
Like dogs and other animals, cats can help ease stress and relieve depression. Their love of cuddling makes cats a good choice for elderly or bedridden people. It would surely be difficult to suppress a smile while watching a cat make a toy out of a bit of paper or chase the light from a laser pointer.
Horses and Empowerment
Service animals come in all sizes. At the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program, horses empower individuals who live with disabilities by giving them a sense of freedom and unparalleled emotional rewards. What began as a community effort in 1980 has grown into a global movement. The organization works with individuals of all ages.
Freedom of movement for people confined within their world, afflicted b a disability, which restricts their movement can be tremendously empowering. Therapeutic riding lessons teach the skills of horsemanship and also offer physical benefits like improving balance and control. They offer what they refer to as hippotherapy with origins from the Greek word for horse. Working with a therapist, individuals work on functional goals to improve their quality of life.
Guide Horses Lead the Way
Now speaking of horses, the Guide Horse Foundation offers an alternative to service dogs in cases where a dog is not the ideal therapy animal. With individuals who are allergic or are afraid of dogs, a miniature horse can act as the eyes for blind individuals, increasing their mobility. Miniature horses are calm and intelligent animals who fit their role well.
With excellent memory and vision, miniature horses are readily accepted in their role as service animals. Individuals needing a service animal will appreciate their long lifespan that can reach upward of 30 to 40 years, plenty of time to forge a strong bond of trust.
Llamas and Alpacas, Oh My!
Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas takes a different approach to therapy animals with the unexpected addition of llamas and alpacas to the mix. Serving the Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA areas, the organization brings hope and smiles to patients with over 1,000 therapeutic visits to patients since its founding in 2007.
Their team of seven therapy animals have been featured on TV, in magazines, and in books. One of them, Rojo the Llama, even has his own children’s book and t-shirts which are a testament to the organization’s popularity.
An Elephant-Size Task
If you think llamas and alpacas may be unusual therapy animals, consider elephants. Therapists in Thailand are working with the Thai Elephant Conservation Center to bring their unique vision of therapy for autistic children to light. Like Mountain Peaks, the unexpected speaks volumes to children with activities to develop basic learning skills. This win-win combination gives children opportunities to interact with intelligent animals that provide a captivating stimulus to learn.
Lending a Hand
The Helping Hands Monkey Helpers non-profit gives individuals with spinal injuries or mobility issues a trained service monkey that can do a greater range of tasks. Because of their fine motor skills, monkeys can do many things that other service animals cannot such as turning pages or scratching itches. The organization has placed service animals in homes, free of charge since 1979.
A Special Pig for the Job
Pigs too offer that spark of the unusual that provides that all-important starting point. Buttercup, a 70-pound miniature Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, offers therapy for children in San Francisco schools. Their natural calm disposition makes these pigs a good candidate for classroom therapy animals.
And just when you thought you heard it all, what would you say to a therapy snake? The National Health Service in London thinks there is a place for snakes in therapy. Again, playing on the unexpected, snakes can empower patients by giving them a sense of accomplishment that comes from handling an animal that many people might avoid or fear.
Not all therapy animals are ones that you can cuddle. Some, you just watch. Humans are naturally drawn to water. And while pretty seascapes are pleasant to look at, they may also have health benefits.
A study done by Purdue University found that aquariums placed in medical centers for treating Alzheimer's disease improved poor eating habits and patient disposition. Caretakers reported that patients were more relaxed and displayed less aggressive behavior. Patients also had greater attention spans after watching colorful fish gracefully swim, in an aquarium.
Service animals do more than help individuals with disabilities navigate within their world. Therapy animals provide much needed support during hard times when the unconditional love given by an animal is the best medicine on Earth. It doesn’t matter if an animal is large or small. It’s the companionship that counts.