Therapy animals have a significant role in improving the health and well-being of humans. They differ from service animals as those perform a task for one person, while therapy animals provide emotional support for many people. Their work typically has them visiting locations where people could use extra love, such as hospitals, schools, and nursing homes.
Therapy animals must undergo extensive training to learn basic obedience skills and remain calm in stressful environments. They must also enjoy the presence of people and are okay with being touched. Several species of mammals can qualify for therapy work. However, here are the top five most popular.
5. Llamas and Alpacas
Not every day do you see a llama in the hospital or an alpaca at a school. But you may see them more often in these environments as llamas and alpacas are increasingly becoming popular therapy animals. At Pet Partners, an international animal therapy organization, 20 percent of their certified species are llamas and alpacas.
As you can imagine, the novelty factor surprises and delights those who receive visits from one of these camelids. Llamas and alpacas' uniqueness also means they have a higher likelihood someone will feel more comfortable around them. Many people fear dogs due to past trauma. However, fewer people have had poor experiences with llamas or alpacas. These animals are also known for having a sixth sense and being able to read people well, which makes them excellent for therapy work.
Petting a rabbit’s velvety fur or watching its little nose wriggle brightens anyone’s day. By nature, rabbits are gentle creatures with a calm yet curious demeanor. Because of this, it helps people feel grounded that have trouble staying relaxed.
Many people facing intense emotional stress, including mental disorders such as depression, PTSD, and schizophrenia, find the experience of interacting with a therapy rabbit calming. A trained rabbit is beneficial for more prolonged interactions with people as they can be easily held and stroked. They are also helpful for people going through cognitive and physical therapy. Patients learn coordination and balance when they get on the ground to pick a rabbit up or groom them with a brush. To become certified, a therapy rabbit must be content with being held, petted, and picked up by strangers for long periods.
Around the time of the pandemic, senior citizens residing in assisted living centers or nursing homes suffered long periods of isolation and feelings of loneliness. The reduction of social and in-person interactions led to higher levels of depression and lowered perceived quality of life. Due to this, there has been an influx of trained therapy cats entering these facilities to bring joy and socialization to residents.
Cats can easily be picked up and held, which makes it easier for those with limited mobility to interact with them. Some other characteristics of cats that make them perfect for therapy are their emotional attachment to humans, the ability to sense negative emotions, enjoyment of being groomed, a low-maintenance lifestyle, and being effective communicators. These felines' small size makes them accessible to carry into airports and first-responder stations.
Since horses are prey and herd animals, they give immediate feedback on how they feel to the animals and people around them. This behavior makes them wonderful therapy animals, whether the patient is riding or handling them. They also possess the ability to mirror the feelings of the handler or rider, which can help mental health patients uncover emotions they have been suppressing.
According to PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International), there are over 813 accredited equine-therapy centers around the globe. These centers will use horses for riding and groundwork-based therapy with patients. Activities include therapeutic riding, vaulting, hippotherapy, horsemanship, and equine-assisted psychotherapy. Unlike their larger counterparts, miniature horses can be invited into hospitals and nursing homes to visit staff and patients.
When the average person thinks of therapy animals, dogs are probably the first that comes to mind. There are over 50,000 therapy dogs in the United States, and they can be trained and certified by various organizations.
The biggest reason dogs are such popular therapy animals is their ability to elevate moods and regulate emotions. They offer social support to those facing loneliness, as the dog is an excellent conversation point between the handler and the patient. Therapy dogs can also assist in niche situations, such as visiting travelers at the airport to fight off anxiety or being read to by children at a library to boost confidence and literary skills.