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Soft, active, or affectionate–traits that help a withdrawn or anxious child;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.
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.”
“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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Scientists worldwide have been studying the effect of religion and spirituality on mental health and addiction recovery in children, teens, and adults. Below are research findings that show religion and spirituality improve adult and adolescent mental health, including recovery from mental crises and substance abuse, when the spiritual approach carries messages of love, kindness, tolerance, and moral responsibility. But when religion had a punitive or unforgiving message to those with mental or substance abuse disorders, the results were disheartening: a worsening of psychotic symptoms; inability to sustain recovery from substance abuse; and physical abuse.
If you look at the dates of some of these studies, you’ll see that researchers have been measuring of the value of spirituality for mental health and addiction for ~30 years, and results have consistently shown statistically significant positive benefits.
Below are summaries research reports–clinical writing that can be difficult to wade through if you’re not a mental health geek, so key findings and conclusions are highlighted in brown to make it easier to scan.
God Imagery and Treatment Outcomes Examined Currier JM, Foster JD, Abernathy AD, et al. God imagery and affective outcomes in a spiritually integrative inpatient program. [Published online ahead of print May 5, 2017]. Psychiatry Res. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.05.003.
Patients’ ability to derive comfort from their religious faith and/or spirituality emerged as a salient mediating pathway between their God imagery at the start of treatment and positive affect at discharge, a recent study found. Drawing on a combination of qualitative and quantitative information with a religiously heterogeneous sample of 241 adults who completed a spiritually-integrative inpatient program over a 2-year period, researchers tested direct and indirect associations between imagery of how God views oneself, religious comforts and strains, and affective outcomes.
Findings — Analyses revealed that patients generally experienced reductions in negative emotion in God imagery over the course of their admissions.
When God Is Part of Therapy Tara Parker Pope, March 2011, New York Times
Faith-based therapy is growing in popularity, reports Psychology Today, as more patients look for counselors who can discuss their problems and goals from a religious frame of reference.
Studies show that people prefer counselors who share their religious beliefs and support, rather than challenge, their faith. Religious people often complain that secular therapists see their faith as a problem or a symptom, rather than as a conviction to be respected and incorporated into the therapeutic dialogue, a concern that is especially pronounced among the elderly and twenty-somethings. According to a nationwide survey by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), 83 percent of Americans believe their spiritual faith and religious beliefs are closely tied to their state of mental and emotional health. Three-fourths say it’s important for them to see a professional counselor who integrates their values and beliefs into the counseling process.
The problem for many patients in therapy is that many patients are far more religious than their therapists.
Nearly three-fourths of Americans say their whole approach to life is based on religion. But only 32 percent of psychiatrists, 33 percent of clinical psychologists and 46 percent of clinical social workers feel the same. The majority of traditional counselor training programs have no courses dealing with spiritual matters.
“[Spirituality] enables neurotic conflicts typical for adolescence to be more easily overcome.”
The influence of religious moral beliefs on adolescents’ mental stability. Pajević I, Hasanović M, Delić A., : Psychiatry Danub. 2007 Sep;19(3):173-83
University Clinical Centre Tuzla, Trnovac b.b, 75 000 Tuzla, Bosnia & Herzegovina. email@example.com.
This study included 240 mentally and physically healthy male and female adolescents attending a high school, who were divided into groups equalized by gender (male and female), age (younger 15, older 18 years); school achievement (very good, average student); behaviour (excellent, average); family structure (complete family with satisfactory family relations), and level of exposure to psycho-social stress (they were not exposed to specific traumatizing events). Subjects were assessed with regard to the level of belief in some basic ethical principles that arise from religious moral values.
Conclusions — A higher index of religious moral beliefs in adolescents enables better control of impulses, providing better mental health stability. It enables neurotic conflicts typical for adolescence to be more easily overcome. It also causes healthier reactions to external stimuli. A higher index of religious moral beliefs of young people provides a healthier and more efficient mechanism of anger control and aggression control. It enables transformation of that psychical energy into neutral energy which supports the growth and development of personality, which is expressed through socially acceptable behaviour. In this way, it helps growth, development and socialization of the personality, leading to the improvement in mental health.
A growing body of multidisciplinary research documents the associations between religious involvement and mental health outcomes, yet the causal mechanisms linking them are not well understood. Ellison and his colleagues (2001) tested the life stress paradigm linking religious involvement to adult well-being and distress. This study looked at adolescents, a particularly understudied group in religious research. Analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) reveals that religious effects on adolescent mental health are complex. While religious involvement did not appear to prevent the occurrence of stressors or buffer their impact, some support was found for the hypothesis that religion facilitates coping by enhancing social and psychological resources.
Study Links Religion and Mental Health David H. Rosmarin and Kenneth Pargament, Bowling Green State University, Ohio, (IsraelNN.com) 2008
A series of research studies – known as the JPSYCH program – reveals that traditional religious beliefs and practices are protective against anxiety and depression among Jews. The research indicates that frequency of prayer, synagogue attendance, and religious study, and positive beliefs about the Divine are associated with markedly decreased levels of anxiety and with higher levels of happiness. “In this day and age, there is a lot to worry about,” Rosmarin notes, “and the practice of religion may help people to maintain equanimity and perspective.”
The Once-Forgotten Factor in Psychiatry: Research Findings on Religious Commitment and Mental Health (excerpt) David B. Larson, M.D., M.S.P.H., Susan S. Larson, M.A.T., and Harold G. Koenig, M.D., M.H.Sc., Psychiatric Times. Vol. 17 No. 10, October 1, 2000
“The data from many of the studies conducted to date are both sufficiently robust and tantalizing to warrant continued and expanded clinical investigations.”
Treatment of Drug Abuse
The lack of religious/spiritual commitment stands out as a risk factor for drug abuse, according to past reviews of published studies. Benson (1992) reviewed nearly 40 studies documenting that people with stronger religious commitment are less likely to become involved in substance abuse.
Gorsuch and Butler (1976) found that lack of religious commitment was a predictor of drug abuse. The researchers wrote: “Whenever religion is used in analysis, it predicts those who have not used an illicit drug regardless of whether the religious variable is defined in terms of membership, active participation, religious upbringing or the meaningfulness of religion as viewed by the person himself.”
Lorch and Hughes (1985), as cited by the National Institute for Healthcare Research (1999), surveyed almost 14,000 youths and found that the analysis of six measures of religious commitment and eight measures of substance abuse revealed religious commitment was linked with less drug abuse. The measure of “importance of religion” was the best predictor in indicating lack of substance abuse. The authors stated, “This implies that the controls operating here are deeply internalized values and norms rather than fear or peer pressure.”
Developing and drawing upon spiritual resources can also make a difference in improving drug treatment. For instance, 45% of participants in a religious treatment program for opium addiction were still drug-free one year later, compared to only 5% of participants in a nonreligious public health service hospital treatment program-a nine-fold difference(Desmond and Maddux, 1981).
Confirming other studies showing reduced depression and substance abuse, a study of 1,900 female twins found significantly lower rates of major depression, smoking and alcohol abuse among those who were more religious (Kendler et al., 1997). Since these twins had similar genetic makeup, the potential effects of nurture versus nature stood out more clearly.
“lack of religious commitment was a predictor of drug abuse”
Treatment of Alcohol Abuse
Religious/spiritual commitment predicts fewer problems with alcohol (Hardesty and Kirby, 1995). People lacking a strong religious commitment are more at risk to abuse alcohol (Gartner et al., 1991). Religious involvement tends to be low among people diagnosed for substance abuse treatment (Brizer, 1993).
A study of the religious lives of alcoholics found that 89% of alcoholics had lost interest in religion during their teen-age years, whereas 48% among the community control group had increased interest in religion, and 32% had remained unchanged (Larson and Wilson, 1980).
A relationship between religious or spiritual commitment and the non-use or moderate use of alcohol has been documented. Amoateng and Bahr (1986) reported that, whether or not a religious tradition specifically proscribes alcohol use, those who are active in a religious group consumed substantially less alcohol than those who are not active.
Religion or spirituality is also often a strong force in [addiction] recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) invokes a Higher Power to help alcoholics recover from addiction. Those who participate in AA are more likely to remain abstinent after inpatient or outpatient treatmen t(Montgomery et al., 1995).
“…adolescents [who were] frequent church-goers with high spiritual support had the lowest scores on the Beck Depression Inventory.”
Suicide Prevention – Surging suicide rates plague the United States, especially among adolescents. One in seven deaths among those 15 to 19 years of age results from suicide.
One study of 525 adolescents found that religious commitment significantly reduced risk of suicide (Stein et al., 1992).
A study of adolescents found that frequent church-goers with high spiritual support had the lowest scores on the Beck Depression Inventory (Wright et al., 1993). High school students of either gender who attended church infrequently and had low spiritual support had the highest rates of depression, often at clinically significant levels.
How significantly might religious commitment prevent suicide? One early large-scale study found that people who did not attend church were four times more likely to kill themselves than were frequent church-goers (Comstock and Partridge, 1972). Stack (1983) found rates of church attendance predicted suicide rates more effectively than any other evaluated factor, including unemployment. He proposed several ways in which religion might help prevent suicide, including enhancing self-esteem through a belief that one is loved by God and improving moral accountability, which reduces the appeal of potentially self-destructive behavior.
Many psychiatric inpatients indicate that spiritual/religious beliefs and practices help them to cope. Lindgren and Coursey (1995) reported 83% of psychiatric patients felt that spiritual belief had a positive impact on their illness through the comfort it provided and the feelings of being cared for and not being alone it engendered.
Potential Harmful Effects
“Psychiatry still needs more research and clearer hypotheses in differentiating between the supportive use of religion/spirituality in finding hope, meaning, and a sense of being valued and loved versus harmful beliefs that may manipulate or condemn.”
Alcoholics often report negative experiences with religion and hold concepts of God that are punitive, rather than loving and forgiving (Gorsuch, 1993).
Bowman (1989). In assessing multiple personality disorder, children in rigid religious families, whose harsh parenting practices border on abuse, harbor negative images of God. Josephson (1993). Individual psychopathology is linked with families whose enmeshment, rigidity and emotional harshness were supported by enlisting spiritual precepts.
Sheehan and Kroll (1990). Of 52 seriously mentally ill hospitalized patients diagnosed with major depression, schizophrenia, manic episode, personality disorder and anxiety disorder, almost one-fourth of [psychiatric patients] believed their sinful thoughts or acts may have contributed to the development of their illness. Without the psychiatrist inquiring about potential religious concerns, these beliefs would remain unaddressed, potentially hindering treatment until discovered and resolved. Collaboration with hospital chaplains or clergy may help in some of these instances of spiritual problems or distress.
Religious/spiritual commitment may enhance recovery from depression, serious mental or physical illness, and substance abuse; help curtail suicide; and reduce health risks. More longitudinal research with better multidimensional measures will help further clarify the roles of these factors and how they are beneficial or harmful.