There are many benefits to having an animal companion. Studies have shown that taking care of a pet can reduce stress and anxiety and elevate mood. It increases your immune system’s performance, and reduces the risk of stroke and heart disease. It can even help you live longer. For people struggling with mental illness or recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, the rewards can be even greater.
A Natural High:
We have known for a long time now that interacting with pets causes a rise in dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters in the human brain that act as feel-good hormones and natural pain relievers. This can help people reach a positive emotional state in a healthier way. Over longer periods of time, this more positive emotional outlook even helps reduce dependence on drugs and alcohol. For people with chronic pain conditions, it can reduce their need for analgesics and opioids. There are three types of support animals, and they all have different training and certification requirements.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) limits service animals to dogs, which are defined as “a dog that has been trained to perform tasks to assist an individual with disabilities.” The tasks they are trained to perform must be related to the particular disability of their owner. They may help people who need assistance with basic daily life tasks, such as taking their medications or maintaining their mobility. They may also be psychiatric service dogs, who have been trained to recognize the onset of a psychiatric event. These dogs receive specialized training in advanced obedience, public access, and task performance. In a crowd, they can help their owner feel more secure, reducing the need for hypervigilance. They can even remind patients to take their medication. The training period for a service dog is 120 hours, and they are not generally required to be certified by the ADA, but are subject to local licensing laws. They also must comply with any local public health and animal control regulations.
Therapy animals are trained and socialized to work as part of a team in settings such as schools, hospitals, or nursing homes. The American Kennel Club provides training programs for therapy dogs, which are considered pets and not provided public access under the ADA. Therapy animals provide affection, comfort, and companionship to people experiencing illness or trauma. Many hospitals, care centers, and recovery programs have begun incorporating the use of therapy dogs and cats into their regimens. A successful pilot program in New York reported that animal-assisted therapy for adult clients in their substance abuse program helped patients to identify and replace unhealthy coping mechanisms and behavioral patterns.
Emotional Support Animals:
Emotional support animals can be any common domestic animal and do not fall under the purview of the ADA. There is no official licensing board or certification process. In general, these animals are pets, and their owners carry a note signed by a doctor or other medical professional indicating that the presence of the pet is necessary to assist with a medical condition of the owner. Emotional support animals may be of benefit to people suffering from mental or emotional illnesses, such as PTSD, autism, or depression, and have been shown to be particularly beneficial for people with anxiety disorders. Emotional support animals help patients by providing them a focus and routine for their daily lives. Looking after another living creature teaches emotional intelligence, responsibility, and improves confidence. It can help patients to gain a better sense of self-worth.
Psychiatry is moving toward a model of treating the whole person, not just their illness. Sometimes, people who struggle to care for themselves can learn how to do so by caring for someone else. Pet ownership may help sick people to find their way back to good health by providing love and being loved in return. A loving relationship with a pet can help patients cope during treatment, feel more engaged in their own care, and remain focused on their recovery.
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