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Updated: June 7, 2011 09:26 IST

A pet theory turns out to be therapeutic

Parinitha Shinde
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MORE THAN FRIENDS: The potential of animals in the treatment of some illnesses is now being tapped by
doctors and animal lovers alike. Photo: K Murali Kumar
The Hindu MORE THAN FRIENDS: The potential of animals in the treatment of some illnesses is now being tapped by doctors and animal lovers alike. Photo: K Murali Kumar

At the end of a tiring day, or when you're down in the dumps, few things are more comforting than having a communion with your pet.

A pet's love is unconditional: there are no sarcasms or counter-arguments. And you can tell secrets to your pet without the fear of it getting out. All very salutary. But whoever knew pets can be therapeutic, that too in the literal sense. The potential of animals in the treatment of some illnesses is now being tapped by doctors and animal lovers alike.

New in India

Animal-assisted therapy or pet therapy is a field that is relatively nascent in India. It seeks to improve the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive functioning of a patient through interaction with varied animals such as dogs, cats, horses, ducks, rabbits and birds.

The connection

Pushpa Bopaiah, an animal therapist who works with horses, says: “While interacting with animals, people feel an immediate connection with them. They respond enthusiastically to the animal, which reciprocates the same.”

Explaining how a horse therapy session works, Dr. Bopaiah added, “It is a non-clinical process. People with both physical and learning disabilities are taught to ride horses by taking its reigns. This improves their posture, balance, fine and gross motor movements.”

The patient profile for pet therapy includes children with cerebral palsy, mild autism, mental retardation, post-surgery individuals, and people suffering from depression and chronic stress. Some city hospitals too are using emu, deer, guinea pigs, peacocks and fish to uplift the spirits of post-surgical patients.

When individuals interact with animals, researchers believe that there is a release of the hormone endorphin, which triggers feelings of happiness and strengthens immunity. Also, patients who are confined to their hospital rooms might sometimes suffer from additional psychological anguish. When a pet is introduced into the environment, their mood immediately lightens. Kavitha Sameer Angre, a special educator, observed: “Certain kinds of dyslexic children learn about responsibility, nurturing and the comfort of physical contact through animals. It reduces their loneliness and angry outbursts.”

Many individuals adopt animals at home to cope with their ailments. Riya Pathania, a student, said: “I can manage my breathing problems through pet therapy. The interactions I have with my pets provide an indirect opportunity for exercise.”

The bone of contention for sceptics with regard to animal-assisted therapy has been that the role of pets is more recreational than therapeutic.

The enduring effects of pets on people's psychological health are yet to be demonstrated. However, its immediate impact on relieving stress remains unbeatable.

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