A theraputic Alpaca…surely not? In honour of Pet Awareness Month we are looking at Animal therapies. Lovers of animals have, for years, talked about the benefits of being in animal company but in recent times it has been acknowledged as a form of therapy for people suffering from personal injury or a physical disability. Therapy animals come in all shapes and sizes. Horses The name for Horse assisted therapy is Hippotherapy and is thought to assist people who have restricted or limited movement. Often time’s people with movement disabilities are restricted to indoor activities but the introduction of Hippotherapy and Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) 40 years ago helped change that. The use of riding goals and targets helps the rider feel more confident and increases self-esteem. Free movement is often not experienced by people with many types of disability, so the movement of the horse can act as a form of physiotherapy and help improve posture and muscle strength. Horses are very social animals and interacting with animals like this has been known to reduce blood pressure. Cats Cats have been known for their ability to know when a person is feeling ill, sad or just in need of a furry friend. Many cat owners express their sheer love for their pet when they are feeling down and all of a sudden, the cat that prefers to be outside wandering the wilderness, hops up into the couch and curls up in their lap. It is an instinct that many animals share and it is what makes cats ideal therapy animals. Studies have shown that stroking a cat can help slow heart rate, reduce blood pressure, relieve tension and promote a feeling of calm. Scientists put this down to the relaxing sensation and sound of the cat purring. Therapy cats are becoming popular in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and nervousness. Many nursing homes and care facilities have resident cats that live at the facility and interact with the patients. A nursing home or a care home can be a very lonely place and a few minutes with a friendly feline can really brighten someone’s day. Dogs Man’s best friend has been used for years to help guide the blind and the visually impaired. The introduction of Guide dogs is thought to date back to the mid-16th Century. In recent decades dogs have ventured into other areas of human assistance and have been used for assist people with hearing difficulties. A therapy dog is a dog that is trained to give comfort and affection to people in hospitals, care homes, schools and people with learning difficulties. In December 2012, following the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Hudson Valley Golden Retrievers Club took a trip to Connecticut to help ease the pain left behind after the shooting. Comfort dogs, as they are often known, are thought to sense sadness and when someone is in need of comfort. They are trained to be compassionate and react calmly to their surroundings. They tend to be similar breeds to guide dogs, such as Retrievers and Labradors, as these dogs are smart and have an excellent temperament. Dolphins Dolphin assisted therapy is thought to have started in Eastern Europe in 1986. There have been arguments for and against the benefits of dolphin therapy. Research is on-going looking at the dolphin’s use of ultrasonic waves to detect illness or malfunctioning body parts. Dolphin therapy has been known to help, not cure, children and adults who suffer with autism, depression, downs-syndrome, paralysis, chronic tired syndrome and many more illnesses. Dolphins are curios and social mammals and are very smart. They can be trained to interact with people in certain ways which is why they make ideal therapy animals. Llamas and Alpacas Llamas and Alpacas may be a strange choice for a therapy animal but in Washington this isn’t strange at all. Bellingham Health and Recreational Centre is visited every few months by two therapy llamas. And in Oregon at Mountain Peak’s Therapy the Llamas and Alpacas are taken to schools, hospitals, retirement homes, adult and child day care facilities and hospices. These animals are thought to alleviate loneliness, lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Llamas and alpacas are friendly and warm and respond to training. Birds There are very few therapy birds at work in the world but those that are trained to be therapy animals are very good at their job. In San Diego, Harriet the Umbrella Cockatoo was taken in by the Helen Wood Animal Shelter in 1993 when she found neglected by her owner. Now well into her 40s, she has trained as a therapy bird and makes regular visits to care homes, hospitals and hospices. She specialises in working with patients with paralysis as she has a special habit of snuggling up under the chin of a person to feel close to them. Patients with paralysis continue to have feeling in their face, which makes Harriet the perfect therapy animal. The benefit of Harriet is that she can be brought right up to the patient which is particularly important for people with paralysis or movement difficulties. Becoming an therapy animal There doesn’t seem to be many restrictions on the species or breed of animal that make the perfect therapy animal. It is based primarily on the specific animal. All therapy animals are tested to ensure they have the right temperament and behaviour in unknown situations and are always accompanied by a certified handler or medical personnel. The use of animals in difficult situations has increased dramatically in recent years and studies into the benefits are continuing. If an animal brings joy to a person who has suffered a loss or has a debilitating illness, then I think it is an excellent form of therapy.