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Animal therapy: a friendly boost

For some, just the sight of an adorable animal is enough to lift their spirits. For others, interacting with a pet such as a cat, dog, rabbit or horse can help them to feel more relaxed and rejuvenated. If you are currently going through cancer treatment, or helping a loved one during this time, then you may want to consider animal therapy as a supplement to your medical treatments.

Whether you are an animal lover or not, studies have shown that spending time with an animal can have numerous health benefits, including lowering your blood pressure and reducing anxiety, as well as boosting immunity and overall wellness.

What is animal therapy?

The notion of animal therapy dates back to 1977, when the Delta Society (now Pet Partners), an organization dedicated to improving human health through animal-assisted therapy, was formed in Portland, Oregon.

To conduct animal therapy sessions, a qualified professional facilitates interactions between patients and animals for therapeutic purposes. There are two main kinds of animal therapy: animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and animal-assisted activity (AAA).

AAT incorporates an animal into goal-based therapy sessions. For example, in a physical therapy setting, a dog might help a patient increase mobility or lose weight by participating in structured activities that encourage movement.

AAA tends to be a more casual, “meet and greet” atmosphere where therapy pets visit with patients for a short or long period of time. The goal is for the animal to provide love and comfort, while giving patients an opportunity to get their minds off of treatments, pain or stress.

How animal therapy works

Animals provide unconditional love, and for many who are experiencing complex emotions or battling a serious illness, this warm feeling of support can raise their spirits and give them hope and energy to face the next treatment steps.

“Studies have shown that having a therapy dog in a hospital may lower anxiety and depression,” says Cynthia Ingram, Animal Therapy Coordinator at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Zion, Illinois. “Therapy dogs can provide for a sense of comfort and overall well-being, and present a more home-like atmosphere.”

While there are positive aspects to visiting with any pet, working with a trained animal therapy dog can help to ensure that the animal is in good health, and that the experience will be safe and productive. Both animal and trainer must finish a rigorous training regimen before meeting with patients in a therapy session.

The 22-part evaluation process for Ingram and her Australian labradoodle, Tori, took almost a year to complete. At the end, Ingram and Tori became a registered pet-partner team through the Delta Society (now Pet Partners). Every two years they retest together, and Tori goes through a health screening every six months.

Benefits of animal therapy

Here are four specific ways that working with an animal can be beneficial for those who are undergoing cancer treatment, as well as their loved ones and caregivers:

  • Reduces stress: Going through cancer treatment can be challenging, and stress can have a negative impact on your health. Visiting with a therapy dog, cat or other animals presents patients and their loved ones with a relaxing activity to look forward to, and a new way to relieve stress.
  • Positive tactile sensation: Put simply, animals are soft. Stroking, petting or snuggling with a soft, furry friend can release endorphins and help you feel better.
  • Provides company: Going through cancer treatment can sometimes be a lonely experience. Even if you are surrounded by friends and loved ones, they might not fully understand what you are feeling. A therapy dog can provide unconditional love, warmth and affection. Therapy dogs provide companionship, and they are trained to understand and respond to human emotions.
  • Provides a distraction: Both cancer patients and caregivers have a lot on their minds. There is a lot to juggle with treatment schedules and everyday responsibilities, and a visit from a therapy animal can be a welcome distraction. Even if the session is just for 30 minutes, the activity can help clear the mind.

“I’ve found that having Tori walk into a patient’s room changes his or her day,” says Ingram of her hospital rounds. “They light up and it’s something they look forward to. Tori is loving, caring, patient and non-judgmental, and that allows patients to relax and be themselves. She enjoys their company, and they enjoy her; a visit simply lightens the patient’s load.”

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