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Natural Awakenings Bucks and Montgomery Counties PA

Animals as Medicine

by Julie Ann Allender

Animal-assisted therapy—also known as pet therapy—brings a lot of questions to mind. Many people think it means working “on” animals. It is not unusual to have a new patient call and ask if they can schedule an appointment to “fix” their dog or cat.

Pet therapy is the term used most often. For 30 years it was done quietly, as the U.S. has made a habit of avoiding the use of animals publicly—for fear of the animal acting out or leaving a mess. Rentals often list “no pets” as a requirement of renting, and animals are banned from restaurants for fear of health issues. A trip abroad will show countries that are much less germophobic, allowing animals in many public places. Thankfully, this attitude is beginning to catch on in America.

There are programs that teach reading to elementary school children by having the child read aloud to a pet therapy dog. Animals are used to sniff out cancers and have been found to be more accurate than much of the fancy medical equipment. Dogs visit child care centers, senior programs and health care facilities helping to spread love and healing. They have been linked to a decrease in depression, illnesses going into remission and linked to medical improvements—decreasing the need for medications.

Horses are used to help rehabilitate prisoners who were once considered unreachable. Inmates are given dogs to foster, learning the value of caring for someone totally dependent on them. Special needs children and adults can learn to readjust to the mainstream with the help of therapy dogs. In therapy, it isn’t uncommon to suggest the use of the family pet to help children overcome fears, such as sleeping in the dark.

Dogs are used as pet therapy and service animals to help the disabled lead more normal lives. They can be trained to pick things up for a person in a wheel chair, open doors or just fill the lonely void. They are now available with a doctor’s prescription for medical and mental health conditions, and can be certified as service dogs or pet therapy dogs. Establishments are required to allow the service dog to accompany the owner. A pet therapy dog may not be given all the same protection as a service dog, but some establishments will recognize them.

Animal-assisted therapy is not new, but the terminology is. Families often have the best drug available to them and don’t even know it—their pets.

Julie Ann Allender, EDD, is a licensed psychologist practicing with the use of animal-assisted therapy in Sellersville. Connect with her at 215-799-2220 or August 2014.

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