After experiencing a stressful or traumatizing event, a person may develop post-traumatic stress syndrome, usually referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder. Those with PTSD continue to experience the fear, anxiety and stress they felt during their initial trauma, even after the event passes. While medication and psychotherapy help to treat PTSD survivors, scientific evidence has shown that incorporating animal-assisted therapy into treatment can further help those affected manage their condition.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can affect anyone, of any age, including war veterans, survivors of sexual or physical abuse and those who live through a natural disaster. After experiencing the event that triggers PTSD, those with the condition experience frightening flashbacks and nightmares of the event, resulting in a constant state of vigilance, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Psychiatric therapy and medication help alleviate these anxiety-based symptoms, but the presence of a comforting therapy pet can also reduce them. A study published in the 1998 edition of "Psychiatric Services" showed that animal-assisted therapy pet sessions helped to reduce anxiety in patients dealing with such mood disorders.
Therapy animals include dogs, cats, miniature horses, birds and rabbits. To work with health-care professionals, a pet and his owner must be registered with an animal-assisted therapy organization, such as Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International. These types of organizations test the pet's temperament, ensuring that he is a social, friendly and well-behaved animal. Once certified, therapy pets provide the emotional support that PTSD patients need to feel better and calmer by giving them unconditional love and companionship.
Therapy in Action
Unlike trained service animals, therapy pets don't help a person with a disability perform a task, according to the University of Minnesota. Instead, therapy animals simply spend time with PTSD patients. This could mean sitting alongside patients during normal psychiatric therapy sessions, according to WebMD, or during special pet therapy sessions, under the supervision of a healthcare professional. Therapy animals allow PTSD sufferers to stroke them, talk to them or hug them during these sessions. Some therapy pets accompany patients outdoors to walk and play with them, encouraging exercise and making them feel safe in the presence of strangers and crowds. PTSD patients may even interact with horses and ride them, promoting a relaxed attitude.
A study published in the November 2012 issue of the "Journal of Child Sexual Abuse" showed that children who participated in animal-assisted therapy sessions had reduced symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression and anger. The simple presence of an animal providing companionship for a PTSD sufferer not only helps psychologically but physically as well. According to the Train a Dog -- Save a Warrior website, for those with PTSD, petting a therapy animal, such as a dog, can decrease levels of the hormone cortisol in the body, while increasing levels of oxytocin. This adjusted hormonal balance promotes feelings of calm and relaxation, reducing anxiety and blood pressure.
Animal-assisted therapy is not an effective substitute for traditional PTSD treatment, although it works effectively when used in conjunction with it, according to the United States Department of Veteran's Affairs. Animal-assisted therapy helps make patients more independent and sociable to other people, according to an article published in the 2012 edition of "Psychiatria Hungarica." Based on such evidence, some groups, such as Soldier's Best Friend, actually provide therapy pets and training directly to veterans suffering with PTSD, at no cost. Unlike traditional volunteer therapy pets, these animals live permanently with the veterans.