The Benefits of Pet Therapy in Behavioral Healthcare

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Behavioral healthcare works to help people make impactful behavior changes to improve their mental and physical health. Types of behavioral healthcare include treatment for mental illnesses, such as substance use disorders and other mental disorders.

Over the past few decades, treatments for and research into behavioral healthcare have greatly improved. While evidence-based care is often the primary approach for mental health, alternative forms of care are on the rise in this treatment field, including pet therapy.

Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, involves guided interactions between a patient and a trained animal, such as an emotional support animal. Treatment is usually facilitated by the animal’s handler, and may involve a number of types of animals, such as: 

  • dogs 
  • birds (especially parrots)
  • cats 
  • guinea pigs
  • horses
  • rabbits 
  • reptiles 

While there are many benefits of pet therapy in behavioral health treatment programs, one of the greatest advantages is that patients tend to be more responsive to treatment with use of pets. For example, pet therapy in alcohol and drug rehab programs help patients stay motivated and keep on track with their recovery.

What are the Benefits of Pet Therapy in Behavioral Healthcare?

Pet therapy works by calling on an existing bond between humans and animals. Benefits may vary by person depending on their condition, but this form of treatment tends to have excellent results in mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

Some of the advantages of using pet therapy in behavioral health services include: 

  • physical benefits: such as lowered blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health, and helping with motor skills and joint health
  • mental health benefits: releasing endorphins which help a person feel calm and happier, improving mood, and decreasing feelings of loneliness, boredom, or anxiety
  • raising a person’s self-esteem
  • prompting better interpersonal and verbal communications
  • establishing trust between a patient and their healthcare provider

How Pet Therapy Works in Behavioral Health Programs

Pet therapy can be administered in a variety of ways, which change depending on the animal, patient, handler, and treatment facility. 

Step 1: Deciding on the Pet

If you and your treatment provider determine that pet therapy is right for you, the first step will be finding an animal that is suitable to help you reach your mental health or recovery goals. 

Factors that can affect which type of animal will best help you in therapy could include the breed, size, and behavior of the animal, as well as your history and response to that type of animal, if applicable.

Step 2: Finding Pet-Friendly Treatment Facilities

Which animal you choose could also be affected by the type of treatment program you’re in. 

For example, patients in long-term care in mental health facilities or addiction treatment facilities may have to choose from a list of animals approved by the facility. If you are still in the process of looking for treatment, it may help to find a pet-friendly treatment facility before deciding on a type of therapy. 

Step 3: Designing Your Treatment Plan

Once you decide on the type of animal-assisted therapy, the healthcare provider will likely establish a treatment plan, outlining goals of therapy sessions and assessing your individual treatment needs. 

Therapy will be administered by your therapist, doctor, or clinician, with the pet’s handler on-site during sessions. Before treatment begins, you’ll be given instructions on safe pet handling and what to expect during sessions. 

As treatment progresses, you and your therapist will work together to ensure you set goals that you can achieve with your chosen form of therapy and that the treatment sessions remain beneficial to you.

Consider Pet Therapy for Mental Health Treatment

In the U.S., 19.7 million adults received mental health treatment in 2016. The very best behavioral health centers understand the importance of offering a variety of treatments that are as unique as the individuals who need care.

If you are ready to improve your mental and behavioral health, consider the benefits pet therapy has to offer. From reducing anxiety to increasing your motivation levels, you likely won’t regret working with an animal for emotional support.

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