Pet therapy: what it is, how it works and what are its benefits

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Pet therapy

The term pet therapy it was coined by the American psychiatrist Boris Levinson in the early 60's and literally means "pet therapy". It is a support practice to other traditional forms of therapy that exploits the positive effects given by the proximity of pets to a person: the doctors explain its advantages. Francesca Abellonio e Manuela Bergadano di Contact pet therapy, a team of professionals operating between Cuneo and Turin.


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In this article

  • How does pet therapy work? 
  • Who benefits the most
  • What changes as children grow up?
  • And for children with disabilities?
  • What are the most suitable animals?
  • Can pet therapy be substituted for other therapies?
  • How widespread is pet therapy in Del Paese?
  • What are the professional figures of this therapy?
  • Is it good to have a pet at home? 
Read also: Babies and pets: everything you need to know

How does pet therapy work?

«We are talking about pet therapy even if the more correct term would be Animal Assisted Interventions, which take place not only in therapeutic but also educational or playful contexts - explains Dr. Abellonio -. These interventions work thanks to the relationship that is established between a domestico animals and a user (child, elderly person, sick person, etc.): a complex and delicate harmony that stimulates emotional activation and favors openness to new experiences, new ways of communicating, new interests.

The animal does not judge, does not refuse, gives itself totally, stimulates smiles, helps socialization, increases self-esteem and has no prejudices. In his company the heart rate decreases e anxieties subside and fears. Furthermore, it favors the full expression of people, which among humans is usually reduced only to verbal language ».


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Who benefits the most?

"In the majority of cases - continues Dr. Abellonio - interventions are activated with children, the elderly, people with disabilities or psychiatric disorders. Interacting with an animal can mean for a child to develop faster learning processes and learn to care for someone other than themselves.

A great opportunity for growth, because the animal has a great emotional value for him: stroking and cuddling him causes a pleasant physical contact and stimulates creativity and observation skills ».

Read also: Dogs and children: how to get them to get along?

What changes as children grow up?

«With pre-adolescent boys and teens, the relationship with the animal can instead become the means to stimulate experiences and reflections on important concepts such as respect, trust, reciprocity: it is used, for example, in prevention projects at Bullying».

And for children with disabilities?

«A separate discussion concerns the interventions for children and young people with disabilities who thanks to the relationship with the animal they can find new enthusiasm and motivation in facing small daily tasks and experience an easy and spontaneous way of interacting. The important thing is that each project is built ad personam, evaluating the specific needs of the user ".

What are the most suitable animals?

"The National Guidelines - says Dr. Manuela Bergadano - recommend involving only companion animals in the interventions, therefore dogs, cats, rabbits, donkeys e horses. Every animal must be certified, must have health and behavioral, aptitude and capacity requirements, assessed by a veterinarian experienced in pet therapy. An essential requirement is the relationship between the pet and its handler: only this bond allows the success of a treatment. The leader is the one who trained him and will be present in all therapy sessions. Our team works only with dogs, we believe that for their behavioral history these animals have something more than the others ».

Can pet therapy be substituted for other therapies?

"No. It is a co-therapy that it does not want to take the place of psychotherapy, physiotherapy and above all it cannot replace the pharmacological therapy. Instead, it was born and developed with the aim of being one adjunct therapy with the aim of facilitating and promoting a positive course of the other therapies in progress ".

Read also: The benefits for the whole family of having a cat

How widespread is pet therapy in Del Paese?

"Assisted interventions with animals are widespread throughout the country with a greater prevalence in the center and north. Realities that have been operating for some time areNiguarda hospital of our city and Meyer's of the city, While the Delta Society in Lombardy e anthropozoa in Tuscany they are recognized associations that have been working in this area for more than ten years ».

What are the professional figures of this therapy?

"The National Guidelines emphasize theimportance of a multidisciplinary team: usually there are a professional educator, a dog educator, psychologists, veterinary doctors and other people who have the task of supervising - says Francesca Abellonio -. It is important that there are at least two operators in each session, in order to ensure constant monitoring.

As for access to the profession, for now there is nothing regulated and anyone can decide to offer themselves with their pet to a facility, putting both users and the animal at risk. Unfortunately, in Del Paese there are many associations that improvise courses but many others with many years of experience that offer serious and complete training. There are also first and second level Masters in Activity and Assisted Therapy with animals in different universities such as Pisa, Genoa, Turin or our city that offer a nationally recognized degree. Those who want to do this job should choose the most serious training course, lasting a minimum of two years and not a few weekends ».

Is it good to have a pet at home?

«I answer as a doctor and as a mother, since I have two two-year-old girls, who grew up with two dogs and a cat. Direct contact with the animal offers many stimuli, the child lives a unique experience and experiences fundamental emotions for its development: attention, respect, tolerating and channeling aggression. In today's world, children are less related to the animal world than in the past, a shame given the emotional richness they transmit. But be careful not to confuse a dog with a babysitter: never leave the child alone with him ".

Read also: The benefits for a child of having a cat at home

Questions and answers

Who is pet therapy aimed at?  

Pet therapy is aimed at children with particular physical or mental disability problems, certain categories of sick people and the elderly.

Which animals are suitable for pet therapy?

Current regulations and scientific literature identify dogs, horses, donkeys, rabbits and cats as animals suitable for pet therapy. 

What are the benefits of having a pet at home?

Having a pet in the house is a benefit for the whole family. Having a dog or a cat helps children to be responsible; moreover, a pet is also a good friend who teaches him to believe in himself.

  • animals and children
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