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MindBody Medicine: Even Alpacas are Doing their Bit to Boost Animal Assisted Therapy

Originally posted February 20, 2014.

Have you had it with office life? Do you want a job that is personally rewarding? Are you looking for a calling and not a regular 9 – 5? Then maybe you should consider animal assisted therapy (AAT). Animal assisted therapy is a great field for those who like working with people and animals. It’s also a growing field, as ongoing research into animal-human relationships reveals just how beneficial animals are in virtually every aspect of our lives. For example, animals can be used to combat depression, overcome addiction, lose weight, reach autistic children, improve physical functioning, rehabilitate convicts and teach kids (and adults) how to read.

There are very few therapeutic contexts in which animals don’t have a role to play.

Animal assisted therapy isn’t pet therapy

One of the first things you need to understand about AAT is that it’s not pet therapy. Pet Partners, a leading resource and reputable course provider for AAT practitioners takes pains to point out that pet therapy is an outdated term that is, in fact, quite misleading. This has partly to with the fact that the therapy doesn’t necessarily require pets in the traditional sense. Dolphins, donkeys and even ferrets can be used, provided they have the right temperament to suit the situation. Also, animal-related therapeutic-type initiatives can be divided into two categories:

  1. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), which is when animals are used in formal therapeutic sessions as part of a prescribed treatment programme. The programme is delivered by a professional therapist (psychologist, physiotherapist or counsellor) and is designed to meet very specific goals, such as improved emotional, physical or social skills. Using dogs or dolphins to help autistic children improve their focus and attention and build their empathy is AAT. Using horses to help disabled people improve their muscular control, fine motor skills and balance is AAT.

  2. Animal Assisted Activities (AAA), which is when animals are used in less formal circumstances to improve general well-being. It can also be used in a variety of contexts, including physical and mental health, education and recreation, but the activities are not necessarily directed by qualified healthcare professionals. In fact, they’re often carried out on a volunteer basis. AAA is taking pets to visit sick children in hospitals or to retirement homes to spend time with the elderly.

Another fairly important difference is that AAT doesn’t require an animal-owner team, while AAA usually consists of owners and their pets. The animals in AAT programmes are carefully vetted and chosen to match individual client needs, while anyone with a pet that is relatively docile and well-trained can apply to join AAA programmes.

Not ready to give up your day job?

If you’re quite comfortable in your day job but you still want to experience the rewards that helping people through animals then you’re more than welcome to give AAA a go. PAT (Pets as Therapy) organisations can be found almost all over the world, in one guise or another. Some organisations have fairly strict assessment criteria (like Pet Partners), while others are a little more relaxed.

In general, however, your animal will need to be reliably well-trained. That means Fido always comes when you call him, not when he feels like it, and he never jumps up to greet people. It should go without saying that all animals need to be housetrained – hospices don’t want to have to clean up trails of rabbit poop along the skirting boards after you leave. The animals must enjoy being touched and handled. If kitty has a tendency to turn around and bite after purring her way through five minutes’ of ear tickling then you probably don’t want her around old folks with tissue-thin skin. All animals must have a clean bill of health and must be clean when they do their rounds.

The animals aren’t the only ones who need to pass an assessment. Some people, no matter how good their intentions, simply aren’t cut out for animal assisted activities. If you’re not terribly good at reading social situations, for example, or you’re not very good at reading your animal’s body language, then you might want to consider an outlet that doesn’t require quite as much sensitivity and awareness.

If you want to get involved in AAA but you’re worried that you won’t be accepted because you don’t have a ‘traditional’ pet, then fret no further. According to Pet Partners, animals that make great PAT pets include guinea pigs, rabbits, pot-bellied pigs, birds and ev3n llamas and alpacas. Snakes, lizards and spiders tend not to make the grade, largely because most people have mild phobias. As wonderful as they are as animals, they’re just not cuddle material.

If you do want to make animal assisted therapy your day job, remember that it is growing as a career all over the world. So if you’re thinking of looking for jobs overseas, then this is one avenue worth exploring.

Featured images:

  • License: Royalty Free or iStock source:|

While Jemima Winslow would love to get involved in a PAT programme, her temperamental rabbit is far less sure that it’s a good idea. And when bunny stamps her foot, Jemima listens.


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