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Pet Therapy For Mental Health: Four-Legged Volunteers Are Helping Patients

Pet Therapy For Mental Health: Four-Legged Volunteers Are Helping Patients

March 01, 2018

By Beth L. Murphy, MD, PhD


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In my work at McLean Hospital, I am surrounded by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health caregivers who are extremely talented, passionate, and caring. This dedicated staff works hard every day to provide the best possible outcomes for our patients, and now they have a volunteer staff of four-legged individuals that helps make their jobs just a bit easier.

With names like Beanie, Pooh, Rufus, Tuna, and Smokey, I must humbly admit—as a psychiatrist myself—that our pet therapy animals may have become our most-favored caregivers. And I’m okay with that, as they have enhanced the ability of professionals to do their jobs and improved our patients’ experiences.

It should be noted, however, that the current body of research addressing pet therapy is somewhat weak. While there are demonstrable short-term benefits, we need more quality research that addresses potential long-term benefits. However, in my estimation, the short-term benefits alone, which include breakthroughs in treatment, are reason enough to have a pet therapy program.

Our group of pet therapy animals is quite diverse, with a wide range of colors, sizes, and shapes. It is mostly composed of dogs, although we have one superstar cat, Tuna (who has his own Facebook page). I would add that such diversity helps to offer something for everyone, but it turns out that each and every animal seems to be adored by everyone.

Our therapy animals aren’t just a bunch of cute faces. They are responsible for significant care enhancements throughout our hospital, with the ability to help patients with virtually any mental health condition.

For example, we have found that one of the things our elder patients miss the most about coming into the hospital is their pets. While they may struggle with certain aspects of their memory, they very clearly remember their animal companions, even those from long ago. By exposing these patients to a therapy animal, we evoke a lot of memories, a lot of positive feelings, and a sense of security.

Staff in our depression and anxiety programs tell us that pet therapy groups are often the first groups their patients feel safe enough and comfortable enough to go to, and they are consistently the highest attended groups for those programs. This ability to simply get patients to participate in therapy is an important breakthrough...

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