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More innovative ways animals help humans

No doubt about it: People have a deep and complex relationship with animals, which elicit a wide range of emotional responses by their very presence and interactions with human beings.

But these days, animals are being involved in human therapy in innovative ways that depart drastically from traditional notions of animal-assisted therapy.

"Most people think of nursing homes, and people going in to cheer up the elderly," said Bill Kueser, vice president of marketing for the Delta Society, a nonprofit group that promotes animal-assisted therapy. "It's really become much more than that."

Animals have become part of many types of psychotherapy, physical therapy and crisis response, Kueser said. And it's not simply using a therapy dog to calm or soothe a person, either, he said.

Cats and parrots, for instance, are being incorporated into therapy for people who tend to act out because of aggression or impulse control issues, Kueser said.

"The animal will stay near that person until the person starts upsetting the animal, and then they'll move away," he said. "The doctor then can point out the effect the patient's behavior had on the animal. They seem to be able to work through aggression issues more effectively that way."

Larger animals also are being used in therapy. Horses are helping troubled teenagers better control their behavior, according to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. The kids gain self-esteem from working with such a large animal, but they also learn to regulate their emotions so they don't "spook" the horse.

People undergoing physical therapy to regain motor skills essential to living also are receiving help from animals. "Instead of moving pegs around on a peg board, the patient might be asked to buckle or unbuckle a leash, or brush an animal," Kueser said.

Even normally calm people who are facing stressful situations are getting help these days from animals.

One recent study found therapy dogs effective in easing the anxiety of people waiting to have an MRI -- and their help didn't involve the side effects that often accompany the use of anti-anxiety medication.

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