Animal Therapy: How Pets Can Transform Our Health and Lives

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Whether you own a dog, cat, a scaly or feathered friend, science confirms that pets can positively impact our mental health. With the “new normal”, post-pandemic altering our lives, pets more than ever have proven to be a lifeline for many Australians today.

Australians love their pets. In fact, according to a survey, 1 in 3 Australians love their pets more than family, and 62% of Australians say that their pet provides them with happiness and unconditional love.

Furthermore, as our nation faces the impact of Covid-19 and nationwide lockdowns, the bitter reality of loneliness and social isolation for many Australians became real. On August 3rd, Lifeline recorded 3,345 calls – its highest daily number in the organisation’s history. So it’s no wonder pets quickly became the support and comfort we turn to, skyrocketing pet ownership from 61% to 69%.

Beyond companionship, love, and getting us active and moving, ever wondered how much more benefits our pets offer us? Baxta’s resident vet Dr Simone Maher says, “Pets provide us with a sense of purpose or reason to get out of bed in the morning. They also positively influence our outlook.” Studies have supported Dr Maher’s view, showing how owning a pet decreases depression, reduces stress, and lifts our spirits. So let’s dive into the positive benefits of pet ownership and why so many Australians can’t get enough of their pets.

Top 5 ways pets improve your mental health

Pet parents do indeed go above and beyond for their pets. Whether it’s feeding a delicious variety of healthy food, creating a safe, loving home or keeping up with regular exercise and veterinary checks, it’s a full-time job, not to mention funding the expenses. But ever stopped to think about the valuable contribution our furry (and not so furry) companions offer us? Here are the top 5 ways pets give so much back to us:

  1. Inspires a sense of purpose
    The saying ‘dogs are a man’s best friend’ was invented for a reason (well, any animal, furry, feathery or scaly who we call our best friend). Whether it’s going for a walk or mooching on the couch after a tough day’s work, pets give us purpose every time we get out of bed. Even the most basic actions, such as meal times, their exercise schedule or cleaning the aquarium on a weekend, can help bring reason and structure into your life.

  2. Improves depression and anxiety
    For many pet owners, pets are also their confidant. A heart to heart with your pet can be a tremendous sense of relief when you’re feeling low. Almost half (47%) of Australians say their pet makes them feel less lonely and comforts them when sad or stressed as they’re always sensitive to their owner’s emotions. Extra cuddles or one look at those puppy dog eyes can be the boost you need.

  3. Great stressbusters
    Touch and movement are two healthy ways to manage stress quickly. Playing with your furry friend produces high serotonin and dopamine levels. These ‘happy chemicals’ can bring blood pressure down, instantly relaxing you. Stroking, hugging, and patting are all movements that will provide stress relief. So, go on! Cuddle up to your pet to de-stress.

  4. Mobilises us physically
    Physical activity is one of the biggest stress relievers when you’re feeling down, and having an active pup is an excellent motivation for us to get out and about.
    If you didn’t already know, dog owners are more likely to meet their daily exercise requirements.

  5. Spurs social interaction and connection
    Think back to the random people you’ve stopped to chat with at the dog park or when walking your pup. Dogs encourage you to get out there, socialise and bond over shared interests with other dog lovers. A social networking app for pets like Baxta app is a super helpful way to connect and find like-minded pet parents. Why not tap in and search for pet-friendly events or join a dog walking group!

Animal therapy and how it works

Based on studies, pets make us feel good – the school of thought is that if we are physically or emotionally unwell, interacting with a pet can improve your cognitive function, relieve stress, depression, anxiety and PTSD. Therapy pets visit hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, and schools to help support those with physical and emotional health problems. They can also provide companionship for both cancer patients and the elderly and improve the social and communication skills of those with Autism.

Dogs are usually the primary animals used in therapy; other animals, including cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and horses, can also assist. Martin Shaw, who runs Horses 4 Heroes, an equine healing program for the wounded says, “It helps with the soldier’s self-esteem and confidence, to be around a 500-kilo animal, which is doing what they’re told and having fun with them. This benefits, in particular, those who, as a result of mental distress PTSD, have often experienced themselves as powerless. It helps to reaffirm their self-worth.”

Therapy animals are selected to undergo a series of tests to determine if they are healthy, calm and fit for the role. From physical exams, immunisation to being free of disease. Only animals that don’t display signs of aggression get the green tick. Animal handlers who assist in training and managing the therapy pet will also have to take a separate instructional course to ensure they’re suited to the job.

Types of pet therapy 

The type of pet therapy is often subject to the needs of the human. To sum it up, here are the three different types of pet therapy:

  1. Therapeutic visitation: Most common and usually involves a pet owner taking their pet to see a friend or family member in a healthcare facility to make them feel better.

  2. Animal-assisted therapy: Involves animals that are specifically trained to assist physical and occupational therapists. These therapy animals are used in situations where patients require improved motor skills.

  3. Facility therapy: These pets permanently live at the health facility and are trained to interact with patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other mental illnesses.

Assistance and therapy dogs – is there a difference?

While therapy dogs do an incredible job of improving the well-being of humans, there are differences to assistance dogs. An obvious difference is that therapy dogs are regarded as ‘pets’ and not considered a medical necessity under Australian law as they provide psychological or physiological support. On the other hand, assistance dogs are regarded as medical aid, specifically trained to perform tasks that help their owner’s disabilities.

In Australia, assistance dogs require two years of training. It costs over $40,000 to provide an individual in need with an assistance dog; which is not covered by any Medicare programs. For this reason, ‘Variety Petember’ runs an annual fundraiser every September to raise money for assistance dogs for those in need.

The tales of our real-life furry heroes

Labrador, Piper helps ex-police officer cope with PSTD

Retired police officer Luis has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Upon his exit from the force, he suffered night terrors, extreme panic attacks, and bouts of sadness – at one point, his wife Paige was too scared to leave him alone while she went to work. Shortly after, Piper, a Psychiatric assistance dog specially trained to help PSTD, entered their lives and she transformed their lives.

Piper’s core role was to help Luis overcome his anxiety when he was out in public. Whenever Piper lays her head in Luis’ lap, it immediately relieves any stress or tension he’s feeling. The ex-police officer’s best remedy for when he’s experiencing a panic attack in public is to look at Piper for five minutes.

How Phoenix cares for Colin, an austistic child 

Five years ago, Colin’s life transformed when he met Phoenix, a service dog. Not only did he live with autism, Colin was also homeschooled due to severe anxiety. With Phoenix’s help, Colin has gained confidence and now attends school like every other child. He even joins the swimming and football club. Colin’s mother, Kaye, is delighted that her son now has a friend for life.

Keeping cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia on the Radar

40-year-old Rachel has lived her whole life with cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia. Radar, her trusty, furry friend, quickly improved her quality of life as arms for Rachel – picking up dropped items, pushing the button at the pedestrian crossing, taking off Rachel’s jacket, and more. Not only that, Radar has provided Rachel with a sense of security wherever she is, as he is never far from her side.