Several scientific evidences show the potential of animals as a treatment tool, particularly in hospitals and retirement homes for the elderly, places in which people are separated from the affection and support of their loved ones.
The presence of an animal acts as an “icebreaker”, offers topics for conversation and ultimately stimulates communication and social relations. Even in the case of people with autism spectrum disorders, who have difficulty communicating and interacting with others, the introduction of pets in therapeutic sessions has had encouraging effects: rapid improvement in the level of attention and frequency of social interactions, both verbal and non-verbal, and reduction of behavioral stereotypies, that is, of those repeated movements without apparent purpose that often characterize the disorder.
The ability of animals to represent a bridge, to foster human social relations, has practical implications not only in care pathways but also in educational settings.
Several interventions for the promotion of the child-animal relationship carried out with the help of pets, especially dogs, have shown their effectiveness in counteracting some behavioral problems such as, for example, learning difficulties, often due to attention deficits, and episodes of aggression. Furthermore, they highlighted the valuable role that animals can play in facilitating social integration in the school environment, a particularly important result for children and adolescents with developmentally characterized pathologies.
Many scientific evidences show how growing with an animal has a positive influence on children’s personality development, increasing self-esteem, self-confidence and improving empathy (ie, the ability to understand the mood of others) and the sense of responsibility. In fact, the relationship established with the animal and the relationship with it, especially during the game, can contribute to favoring, in the child, social behavior thus facilitating the methods of approach and interaction both with the other children who with adults.
The mechanisms underlying the effects described are still under study. It is known that the mere presence of an animal during situations perceived as stressful (for example, reading aloud in front of other people) reduces anxiety levels, blood pressure and heart rate.
Scientific studies have shown that physical contact with an animal induces a reduction in blood levels of the hormones responsible for the stress response (cortisol). In parallel, it causes an increase in the amount of hormones and neurotransmitters able to determine positive emotions (endorphins and dopamine) and to reduce anxiety and stress. This also leads to an improvement in relationships with others and mood (through the stimulation of oxytocin, a neuropeptide secreted by the hypothalamus). The results of the most recent research also demonstrate how relationships based on affection and attachment can actually be established between different species and also determine a reciprocal regulation of emotions and behaviors.
As a gentle therapy to complement traditional therapies, pet therapy is aimed at patients affected by learning disabilities, attention, psychomotor disorders, anxious and depressive neuroses, Down syndrome, West syndrome, autism, senile dementia, psychotic disorders and multiple sclerosis.
The ranking of the animals used in pet therapy sees at the top the dog, man’s best friend, and then we will have cats, hamsters and rabbits, horses, birds (in particular parrots), aquarium fish and dolphins. To close the list, a series of farm animals such as donkeys, goats and cows.
Research has shown that the effects of the proximity of a cat are found at the level of blood pressure and also as regards the progress of those living with Alzheimer’s disease, going to reduce the levels of anxiety generated by the degeneration of the disease.
Even among AIDS patients there are benefits and fewer falls in depressive states. Significant benefits were also found with respect to the elderly, the chronically ill and the disabled. Some studies have shown satisfactory results in the treatment of schizophrenia and insomnia.
Those over 65 who have a dog do about 30% less medical examinations than those who do not.
One of the reasons for the therapeutic effects is that dogs meet one of the basic needs of the human being: contact. Even criminals locked up in prison showed long-term behavioral changes after interacting with dogs.
Stroking, hugging and generally touching the beloved animal friend can quickly calm and comfort us when we are anxious or under stress. The company of an animal can also alleviate the sense of loneliness and many dogs can also help us do healthy exercise, all of which are essential for alleviating depression.
The acoustic, visual, olfactory, but above all tactile and vestibular stimuli, coupled with the serenity of the environment that surrounds the stables and stables, assist the action carried out by the horse during therapy.
The child, but also the adult, finds himself surrounded by great passion and dedication to an animal that gives serenity and affection as well as strength and courage.
The horse, therefore, always trusted by man’s companion for work and sport, if properly listened to, it also reveals an emotional support not only as a therapeutic aid, but also for the riders!