What is now being confirmed regularly by science is how powerfully the human-animal connection contributes to healthier, happier and simply better lives — for people and pets. Research today shows that when you bring the two together, a person’s physical and mental well-being improves, and the pet thrives, too.
We love them and we’re thrilled they love us. Everywhere we go someone has a pet by their side. Some are legitimate assistance animals. Others, not so. How do we know the difference? What do we call our fur babies who help us stay connected to the real world?
What are Animal Assisted Activities?
Animal Assisted Therapy is confused with Animal Assisted Activities (AAA). These animals tend to be regular pets that an institution — a hospital, a nursing home, college or university — will invite in to cheer, soothe, or otherwise distract the residents. Therapy Animals aren’t protected by law, so whoever’s hosting them can make their own rules.
AAA involves more casual and unstructured meetings where an animal and its handler interact with one or more people for comfort or recreation. AAA can involve more than one patient and the focus is on the animal. Dogs and cats are most commonly used in pet therapy, however, fish, dolphins, guinea pigs, horses, and other animals can have been used.
Benefits of Animal Assisted Activity
Animal Assisted Activity builds on the human-animal bond. Interacting with a friendly pet can help a person deal with physical and mental issues. It can help lower blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It can promote the release of endorphins that have a calming effect, reducing pain and stress and generally improve psychological states. Petting an animal automatically brings relaxation. Mental health benefits include lifting spirits, decreasing feelings of isolation and alienation, creating motivation to recover faster and increasing self-confidence.
What’s a Service Animal?
Service Animals are trained to assist a disabled person by performing specific tasks: they guide the blind, signal the hearing-impaired, pull wheelchairs, etc. Their use is governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, allowing anyone requiring the assistance of a Service Animal to bring that animal into a public place without discrimination — meaning that new restaurant can’t hide you both behind a screen in the back. Service Animals act as companions and aides to people who have a disability. Besides the common
Service Animals act as companions and aides to people who have a disability. Besides the common uses, they also assist those with conditions that aren’t visible such as diabetes, or mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.
Service dogs are not regular pets. To be legally recognized as a Service Animal they MUST BE trained to perform tasks that help someone with a disability. This means anything from bringing someone their medication during times of crisis or finding help during a medical emergency.
What’s an Emotional Support Animal?
An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) doesn’t do the same kind of obvious work as a Service Animal. This is a companion providing therapeutic benefit for those suffering psychiatric problems. For some with disabilities, the presence of the animal companion is critical to their daily functioning. The emotional support and comfort provided by their pet allow them to deal with challenges that might otherwise compromise their quality of life.
Although all animal companions offer an emotional connection, to legally be considered an Emotional Support dog, a pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness. A professional must decide the presence of the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient.
While you can’t take your Emotional Support Animal to all places, they are allowed to be brought into airports and onto planes. Unlike a Service Animal, an ESA can also be a cat or most any other species.
Emotional Support vs. Service Dogs
The key difference between an ESA and a Service Dog is the animal has been trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to the person’s disability. For example, alerting a hearing-impaired person to an alarm or guiding a visually impaired person around an obstacle are jobs performed by Service Dogs.
What is Pet Therapy or Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?
Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals are legal classifications. That’s not the case with Pet Therapy, also referred to as Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). This involves animals as a form of treatment. It is structured and has specific objectives for each session. The purpose is to help someone recover from or cope with a health problem or a mental disorder. Pediatric Care: Therapists can rely on monitoring a child’s behavior with an animal, noticing their tone of voice and using the animal to indirectly interview the child to get
Pediatric Care: Therapists can rely on monitoring a child’s behavior with an animal, noticing their tone of voice and using the animal to indirectly interview the child to get the necessary information. A frequently used technique to get the most helpful information about a child’s experience is to tell a child that the animal wants to know how they are feeling or what happened.
Prisons: Prison based Animal Assistance Therapy involves an inmate working with a qualified handler to train an animal through a structured and goal-oriented program. Animal Assisted Therapy is directly linked to increased physical and mental health benefits, induced relaxation, self-confidence, improved intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, and better environmental conditions for the prisoners.
Nursing homes: Animal Assisted Therapy utilizes the bond between animals and humans in order to help improve and maintain a patient’s functionality and quality of life. When moved into a different home some become passive, agitated, withdrawn, depressed, or inactive because of the lack of regular visitors. In certain cases, pets motivate patients to be more active mentally and physically; keeping their mind sharp and body healthy.
For dementia patients, hands-on contact with an animal can be valuable. It gives the opportunity to enjoy close physical contact with an animal’s warm body, feeling heartbeats, caressing soft skins and coats, noticing breathing, and giving hugs. Patients also experience increased physical movement as they’re encouraged to walk and groom an animal.
Regardless of the classification labeling an animal’s support of us humans, the truth remains: our pets are “the bridge between us and the beauty of all that is natural. They show us what’s missing in our lives, and how to love ourselves more completely and unconditionally. They connect us back to who we are, and to the purpose of why we’re here.” ― Trisha McCagh