An amazing variety of creatures make good therapy animals: dogs, cats, “pocket pets” like ferrets, birds, and reptiles are therapeutic for children who struggle with any disability: physical, behavioral, and developmental. A calm smiling dog, an affectionate cat, or a small pet a child can hold is a great therapist. The right therapy animal offers unconditional love and affection, and the ideal animal makes your child feel special. Measurable benefits have been seen with many creatures “ranging from dogs, cats, birds, and fish to goats and snakes.”
If you are considering therapy pet, strategically pick the right animal.
When identifying a pet, monitor your child’s interactions when they are first introduced to the creature. Be honest with yourself, the therapy animal you think is best may not be the best for your child. Hyperactive and barking dogs, aloof or mean cats, fearful hamsters, and noisy birds don’t work and can be outright stressful. Pay attention—people are often unaware how much stress a fussy pet causes with distractions and chaos.
What is the right animal?
- The animal’s natural manner fits your child’s emotional needs.
- Quiet–if your child easily experiences sensory overload;
- Soft, active, or affectionate–traits that help a withdrawn or anxious child;
- Interactive–if your child needs to maintain interest or needs attention: a bird that speaks, or a dog that follows instructions;
- The animal likes to be with your child for long periods. The animal has a preference for your child.
- Your child is able to treat the pet humanely. (Animals can be abused consciously or unconsciously by troubled children.)
- You appreciate the animal too and aren’t concerned about mess, smell, hair, or feathers in your home. You should consider yourself the one responsible for its care. This pet is a therapist first, and not a lesson in responsibility. Your child can learn responsibility another way.
- The child’s pet should still be welcome and cared for if it doesn’t work out for your child. If it’s not wanted, consider a rescue shelter or humane society that can find a caring owner.
Most people are familiar with therapy dogs. Their natural affinity with humans is the reason why dogs are the most popular of pets. And research shows dogs reduce depression and anxiety. If you are interested in getting a puppy to train as a therapy animal, you can find instructions on how to train certified therapy dogs, and pick up tips for training your dog to fit your home. (Real certified dogs need significantly more training so they can trusted in nursing homes, hospitals, and schools.) “How to train a therapy dog”
The parrots and parrot-like or hooked beak birds are smart and can have marvelous personalities. They will affectionately bond with their owner for life. These colorful birds can be trained to perch on a finger or shoulder and spend time with people, other birds, even dogs and cats! The best low-cost option is a parakeet, a low maintenance, happy chirpy creature, easily tamed, and easily trained to talk.
“Patients hold and stroke cockatiels so tame that they often fall asleep in a human lap.” Maureen Horton, the founder of “On a Wing and a Prayer” tells of “non-responsive patients in wheelchairs who suddenly begin speaking again while petting a cockatiel as their relatives weep at the transformation.” She described bringing her birds to visit a group of violent teenage delinquents who clamored to touch a cockatoo named Bela. “For a few minutes,” Horton says, “these hardened criminals became children again.”
— “On a Wing and a Prayer,” a pet-assisted therapy program, uses birds to visit patients.” Connie Cronley, Tulsapeople.com
Fish can’t be held, but few things beat the visual delight and serenity of a beautiful aquarium. Fish have personalities and form interactive communities in a tank, which are fun to watch, and individuals are fun to name. There is a reason aquariums are common in waiting rooms and clinics, lobbies, and hospitals. They help people relax and calmly pass the time.
Little mammals that like to be cuddled and carried around, often in pockets, are good therapy: ferrets, mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, and very small dogs. It is best to select a young animal that is calm and won’t bite, and handle it gently and often so that it becomes accustomed to being held. Challenges with many pocket pets include running away or escaping their enclosures, urine smell, and unwanted breeding. As the main caretaker, you will want to be comfortable with their needs.
Snakes and lizards are also excellent pets and demand little attention, and they are readily accepted by children. My bearded dragon, Spike, comes with me to my support groups. Dragons are a very docile species–safe with young children and popular with teens and parents. Other good species are iguanas, and geckos.
“I’d have to say my Leopard Gecko Mindy is very much therapy for me. She really is my therapy lizard, she wants to sit with me when I’m upset and tolerates me, which even my two dogs and cat won’t. She’ll just find a place on me and curl up and be like “I’m here, I won’t leave you.””
–User name “Midori”, Herp Center Network
Properly trained horses are extraordinarily healing. certified horse therapy programs are considered medically effective treatment and often covered by health insurance. Horses benefit disabled children and teens across the board: those with physical disabilities such as paralysis and loss of limbs, mental/cognitive disabilities such as development disabilities and retardation, and children with mental and behavioral disorders. The horses are selected for their demeanor and trained to reliably respond appropriately to children who may misbehave. Therapists are specially trained also to collaborate with the horse as a team. Horses have a “large” serenity and a lack of concern with the child’s behavior. They are also intelligent and interactive like dogs, provide a warm soft hide to lean on, and they empower their riders. A child on a horse will connect with the animal’s rhythmic bodily movement, which stimulates the physical senses and keeps the child physically and mentally balanced. According to parents and children in these programs, horses change lives. New research proves horses are genuinely effective: Study Suggests That Equine Therapy is Effective.
How has your child’s pet improved mental health?
Your comments help others who read this article.
The science behind animal therapy
Are dogs man’s best therapist?
Psychiatric Times. H. Steven Moffic, MD. February 29, 2012
Note: this is an excellent article by a psychiatrist who moved from disbelief to belief that dogs have a genuine therapeutic value, healing some of the most psychiatrically challenging children. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/blog/moffic/content/article/10168/2040421
Children’s best friend, dogs help autistic children adapt (summary)
Journal: Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2011, Universite de Montreal
Dogs may not only be man’s best friend, they may also have a special role in the lives of children with special needs. According to a new study, specifically trained service dogs can help reduce the anxiety and enhance the socialization skills of children with Autism Syndrome Disorders (ASDs). The findings may lead to a relatively simple solution to help affected children and their families cope with these challenging disorders.
“Our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children’s stress hormone levels,” says Sonia Lupien, senior researcher and a professor at the Université de Montréal Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital, “I have not seen such a dramatic effect before.”
Pet therapy: how animals and humans heal each other. (summary)
by Julie Rovner, March 5, 2012, National Public Radio
“A growing body of scientific research is showing that our pets can make us healthy, or healthier. “That helps explain the increasing use of animals — dogs and cats mostly, but also birds, fish and even horses — in settings ranging from hospitals and nursing homes to schools, jails and mental institutions.”
“In the late 1970s that researchers started to uncover the scientific underpinnings animal therapy. One of the earliest studies, published in 1980, found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. Another early study found that petting one’s own dog could reduce blood pressure.
“More recently, says Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, studies have been focusing on the fact that interacting with animals can increase people’s level of the hormone oxytocin. “That is very beneficial for us,” says Johnson. “Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting.” Which, Johnson says, may be one of the ways that humans bond with their animals over time.”
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