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Amy Johnson Nov 4, 2009

Part II: Pets in practice: Can they really be co-therapists?

We allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups, alone in races, even alone in genders.
-Maya Angelou, poet (1928- )

As humans, I believe we often give ourselves a little too much credit, believing that only we, the superior species, can be helpful to others. Though anecdotally were hearing more and more stories about pets stepping up and offering a paw and consequently, research is backing this up. It seems we can accept a dogs service for sniffing out bombs or drugs, but thats where the service line is drawn.

Last week I shared findings from the Human-Animal Interaction Impacting Multiple Species Conference, mainly focusing on the use of dogs with youth in a clinical setting. But while canine counselors have seen their fair share of attention in the media and journals, researchers and clinicians at the conference also reported on their knowledge and experiences about other species specializing in the treatment process.

In 1988, Leo Bustad1 wrote about a rather withdrawn elderly woman named Marie and how a charismatic cat helped improve her quality of life. Marie lived in a nursing home after a debilitating stroke left one half of her body paralyzed. Without friends or family, she began to lose her will to live and refused to communicate with staff or residents. All seemed grim until Handsome the Persian feline moved into her room and changed all of that. Marie grew to love Handsome and within weeks, her personality and willingness to live returned. Her feline friend even helped her make human friends as the other residents began to visit the cat, subsequently talking to Marie as well. Cats have also benefited patients with advanced AIDS (Castelli, 1995) and elderly women living alone (Mahalski, 1988).

Dr. Hannah-Leigh Bull2 presented her research using llama-assisted therapy (LAT). Yes, I did say llama-assisted therapy. Despite the oft-depicted llama spitting at admirers who come within 10 feet, llamas are actually gentle, accepting, patient and comical creatures. These curious, ebullient beasts model and teach ethics of community, commitment, family values, self-esteem and boundary setting. Dr. Bull has been able to successfully integrate LAT with children and adults who experience behavioral issues as well as families with the need to address boundary and commitment concerns. Llamas are also prone to unprovoked bursts of joy causing them to kick up their heels in a dance to express their happinessa lesson for humans in need of an alteration in consciousness.

Even our finned companions can offer scaled down versions of therapeutic intervention. Dr. Alan Beck (one of the countrys premier authorities on animal assisted therapy) studied the effects of using fish aquariums3 in the dining area of nursing facilities for individuals with Alzheimers and dementia4. The findings from his study included an increase of food intake by residents of 21-27% because they stayed at the table longer. As weight loss is typical of those with Alzheimers and a sign of progression, 87% of the residents actually gained an average of 1.6 pounds over the four month period and because the residents ate more, the use of nutritional supplements was decreased by 25%.

Dr. Bull believes its Limbic Reasoning that fosters the healing nature of animal assisted therapy and the human animal bond how one mammal can restructure the limbic brain of another. An example of limbic reasoning would be a friend who's feeling sad is curled up on the couch. Another friend sits beside her and begins acting silly or cracking jokes. Within minutes, the sad friend is smiling and mood is elevating.

So while members of the animal kingdom will not be applying for counseling licensure any time soon, using four legged (or finned) friends in conjunction with traditional therapies can often provide increased benefits for those in need. Thanks for reading and as always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts, experiences and comments.

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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