Therapy animals are used to promote many facets of well being, from the mental to the physical. Research has shown that having pets can contribute to a longer healthier life, and therapy animals help offer similar benefits to people without their own pets. They visit hospitals, convalescent homes, day care centers, schools, prisons, and disaster areas to bring comfort and affection to a wide variety of people who can benefit from it.
A therapy animal must undergo training and, in the United States, can be evaluated by and registered with a national organization. They are not service animals, such as the guide dogs that assist the blind, and usually work with a number of patients instead of assisting just one person. Service animals must undergo much more extensive training than therapy animals and often have the legal right to accompany their owners in areas in which other animals are not allowed.
Many different species and breeds can be therapy animals, even mixed breeds. Dogs are perhaps the most common, but cats, rabbits, birds, potbelly pigs, guinea pigs, reptiles, dolphins, and horses are among those that can also serve as therapy animals. No matter what species, a therapy animal must be calm, patient, friendly, and gentle. They must enjoy human contact and be comfortable with strangers of varying ages, temperaments, abilities, and stages of health.
One of the first therapy animals was Smoky, a Yorkshire Terrier used to cheer up wounded American soldiers during World War II. The systematic use of therapy animals began in 1976, when American nurse Elaine Smith began a program to bring animals to institutions after her experience as a nurse in England. While there, Smith noticed that her patients benefited from visits from a chaplain who brought along his pet Golden Retriever. Golden Retrievers remain one of the most popular animals for therapy due to their gentle, upbeat disposition.
Animal companionship can help lower blood pressure and stress, as well as alleviate loneliness and depression. they have been shown to help children with autism and other behavioral developmental disorders to become more attentive and communicative. Therapy animals can encourage patients to exercise and offer unconditional love, boosting self-esteem and security. They can also promote communication between people, as they provide everyone in their presence with a common bond. Petting and playing with an animal offers many people a feeling of closeness and companionship that they have difficulty finding with other humans because of their specific life situation or disability.