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The Power of Pets

How Animal Interactions Can Support Mental Health and Well-being

Animal companionship has served human beings long throughout our history. Although these relationships were conceived for functional purposes and survival, our inter-species bonds have evolved into complex and tightly knit symbiotic relationships. Dogs, cats, and many other species have become an integral part of our homes, hearts, and even our health.

For many pet owners, their furry friends are the alarm clock that gets them out of bed each morning. Pets require a sense of responsibility beyond ourselves, which promotes structure and consistency in our day to day lives. Their presence alone helps to ground us in our bodies, as animals are far more occupied with their immediate surroundings than most of their human counterparts. This prevents us from overthinking and takes our focus off stressful situations that may be impacting other parts of our lives.

As well, other species do not follow the same social protocols as we do. For this reason, building a relationship with an animal across the language barrier supports the development of stronger emotional, social, and communication skills. This process of bonding has also been shown to increase feelings of self-worth. This is likely because of how reliant our pets are on us. We are the center of their worlds, and therefore the recipients of unconditional love, loyalty, and affection.

Modern research also shows that even the simple act of petting an animal lowers stress hormone levels and blood pressure. This physical connection also releases the brain chemicals oxytocin, serotonin, and prolactin, which create the perfect recipe for an elevated mood.

This has led to a rising interest in animal-based interventions for many mental healthcare patients and providers. Furry friends are now being integrated in treatment plans for everything from depression to schizophrenia in a variety of ways. Therapy animals, psychiatric service animals, and emotional support animals are the three main categories of medically recognized interventions for psychiatric care.

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)

Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is a relatively new evolution in animal-based medical services. In this practice, the animal functions as both a facilitator of the therapeutic process as well as a motivator for the patient to engage in the treatment plan. This intervention can be incredibly useful in cases where the patient is reluctant to participate in the therapeutic process. The presence of therapy animals has been shown to bring greater ease to these patients, allowing them to share their experiences more deeply.

Dogs are the most popular choice for this type of intervention, but horses, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, pigs, and llamas are also used. Therapy animals are used to support a wide range of psychological and physical needs, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, addiction, phobias, dementia, Alzheimer’s, autism, cancer and heart disease. While these animals may primarily service their owner, most therapy animals operate through a visitation program that allows them to offer their services to patients at mental health facilities, rehabilitation programs, hospitals, nursing homes, community centers, and even prisons.

These certified organizations offer ongoing education to both the animal and their owner as well as liability insurance for working with patients. The animals must go through rigorous temperament testing to prevent any dangerous responses to stress, as well as thorough obedience training and vet screening. This ensures that the animal can provide safe, quality care in a variety of environments.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Service animals are trained to unfailingly perform essential tasks that support an individual with a physical or psychiatric disability. This certification is currently limited specifically to dogs.

These animals must undergo intensive training which is usually conducted by a certified professional shortly after they are weaned from their mother. However, it is possible for an individual to train their adult dog to become a service animal so long as the animal meets the certification criteria.

These animals are constant companions that are given special legal status to enter all public places alongside their owners. They are also protected from restrictive housing policies. The most recognized service dogs work with blind, deaf, and physically limited individuals, such as those confined to a wheelchair. However, service dogs are rising in popularity in the psychiatric field.

Psychiatric service dogs are usually assigned to individuals with serious mental health challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, and chronic depression or anxiety.

These dogs may be trained to perform any of the following tasks:

Upon receiving their certifications, psychiatric service dogs will be given a special uniform to wear whenever they join their owner in public places. Remember that these are working dogs that need to pay keen attention to their owner’s needs, so please do not approach or interact with them in public.

Emotional Support Animals (ESA)

Any animal that provides comfort and relief to their owner’s mental health challenges is an emotional support animal, no matter their species. After all, simply having a doting companion to sit beside you as you watch TV has numerous psychological benefits.

These animals do not have the right to access public places like service animals do, but they are given special legal protections against restrictive housing policies. Previously, this exemption also applied to airlines. However, this privilege was retracted in January of 2021.

While emotional support animals are technically protected against housing discrimination by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you will probably need to provide a letter from a psychiatric care provider to any potential landlords. Therefore, this special status can only be awarded to pets whose owners have been given a specific diagnosis regarding their mental health.

If you feel that you can benefit from incorporating animal-based interventions into your treatment plan, contact your mental healthcare provider to make the necessary arrangements.


Getting Help

If you are looking to improve your mental health and wellness, we are ready to help on that journey. We have a team of psychiatrists, therapists and psychologists that specialize in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and medication management. Our team of compassionate and skilled professionals is available for in person appointments for patients in the DFW area. We also offer online appointments for patients in the Austin, DFW, Houston and San Antonio areas.

Dr. Michael Messina

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