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The Therapeutic Benefit of Pets

If you’ve never had some type of furry companion in your life, you could really be missing out on not only the fun that pets bring, but also the destressing and therapeutic benefits of spending time with them. Whether you consider pets furry humans and a part of the family or not; their presence can provide enrichment to your life and increase your wellbeing.

*Warning we were completely so excited to write this blog that we have FILLED it with pics of all of our pets! Try not to smile while scrolling through, just try!

Nessa’s Lilly hangs around our office looking for her next opportunity to give comfort and GET treats! She suceeds often!

Depending on the type of pet we are talking about, they are usually super happy to see you every time you come in the door.  No matter how rough of a day you might have had, their presence can be calming and center you when it feels like your thoughts are chaotic and out of control. If you’ve been struggling, feeling alone, or feeling purposeless lately, you might want to consider letting a furry being or little critter of some sort into your life and home.

Anna’s Spike decreases her stress from watching him swim through the tank

There are so many different types of pets 

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Fish
  • Snakes
  • Reptiles
  • Birds
  • Horses
  • Chickens
  • Ducks
  • Hamsters
  • Chinchilla
  • Sugar Gliders

The list can go on and on…

Important Distinctions

Carrie’s Max is deep undercover; waiting for the right opportunity for a snack attack!

Service Dogs

Animals can increase your wellbeing and provide emotional support and comfort, whether that’s a cat, dog, bird, lizard, or some other type of animal. However, it’s important to distinguish between a pet, an emotional support animal and a service dog. Service dogs go through extensive training to be able to provide a concrete and defined service to their owners. That’s why you’ll often see signs that say, “Please don’t pet me, I’m working!” The work that these dogs do typically involves helping the owner cope with some type of disability. For example, the dog might retrieve objects that are hard to reach for the owner, maybe they provide deep pressure therapy when the owner’s anxiety gets activated, or maybe they provide some medical alert, (like when the owner’s heart rate is in a danger zone or the oncoming presence of a seizure), or they may be an person’s eyes and ears if they have sensory issues.

These dogs do amazing services for their humans and are allowed in public spaces because of their extensive training and certifications typically prior to the owner ever bringing them home. They are usually so well trained that most of the time, you won’t even know they’re there.

Emotional Support Animals

On the other hand, emotional support animals are just as important, but they most likely didn’t receive the same level of specialized training to complete tasks for their owner. That doesn’t take away from the therapeutic benefit they provide though! There are many breeds of dogs that are simply intuitive in discerning what their owners need. They can see if they are anxious and naturally position themselves to be close and a comfort to their human.

Snuggle time with Carrie’s Jazmine & Max

Michelle A’s Lester’s favorite past time is chasing indecisive squirels 

While our other Michelle’s (Lombardo) Riley does his best work laying down

With the growing popularity of “emotional support animals,” a huge distinction to be aware of is that emotional support animals are NOT covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which means that you can’t necessarily take your emotional support animal to every public place or places that service dogs can go. This is a frustration to many pet owners but it is for the safety of both the pets and their humans. A animal may be amazingly behaved at home with you and bring you immense joy and calm, but it may not be as well behaved around strangers or other “service dogs” in the community. This can lead to high stress situations that could put everyone in overdrive.

Mr Pickles to the rescue

But don’t fret! It’s entirely possible for your pet to go through a training process to become a service animal and those classes can be fun and easy to find. If you are finding that you aren’t necessarily up to the time and expense of having a service dog trained you can look into getting a letter of support on your need for an “emotional support” animal which can often allow you to keep a pet in buildings/living situations that do not otherwise allow them.

This does require you to have a diagnosis that necessitates or would greatly benefit from an emotional support animal. Oftentimes if you have an established relationship with a therapist or doctor, they can assist you with this in writing a letter of need. This letter DOES NOT qualify your pet as a service animal, and it is up to your individual provider to make the determination about writing a letter of support. This will likely include meeting your pet, which can be fun.

Erin’s Rosie enjoying the dog days of summer

Being Mindful

It’s worth noting that a lot of people with service dogs can get frustrated when non service dogs or people distract their animals in public spaces. Service dogs serve an important job and can save their owner’s life. At the very least, they certainly help them function in ways they could not otherwise, so it’s important that the service dogs not become stressed or distracted.

Carrie’s Jack and & Jazmine patrolling the perimeter

Keeping this in mind, be respectful of public spaces. Even if you really want to bring your pet or emotional support animal, it may not be what is best for the animals, others, or you. Check out your local laws and keep the safety of service dogs and their owners in mind.

Fun and Therapeutic Benefits 

Now that we’ve covered a bunch of important technical information, let’s get to the fun stuff. If when you see a dog trotting down the street smiling, you gravitate toward greeting it before its owner, it’s probably no surprise to you that research has shown animal-assisted therapy to be effective and that simply the bond between humans and animals can have therapeutic benefits.

Natalie’s Mr Pickels DARES you to stay in a bad mood around his cuteness!

Having animals in your life can:
  • Decrease stress levels
  • Provide emotional support (they have a listening ear)
  • Increase social activity (going to the park/dog park)
  • Provide physical comfort via warmth and cuddles
  • Decrease loneliness and provide companionship
  • Provide a sense of purpose and daily structure (your animals depend on your care)
  • Cultivate spirituality and peace via the human and animal bond

Anna’s Caramel ready for a road trip!

There are ways that you can experience these benefits, even if you feel as though you cannot take adequate care of an animal of your own right now. You might consider volunteering at an animal shelter or a horse stable. Most shelters take volunteers to simply come in and pet the cats, play with puppies and walk dogs! Is there any better way to volunteer your time?!?! As a bonus, socialized animals are easier to adopt out, so it becomes a win-win for everyone.

Animals provide a calming presence. There is serenity existing in the same space as another being without necessarily feeling the need to talk, and sometimes the interactions between animal and human are very powerful. There seems to be a mutual care, respect, and understanding.

I know I felt that way when while snorkeling once I came across a pod of wild dolphins on vacation. Aside from being beautiful creatures, I was awestruck by how healing it was to be acknowledged by another being without words being exchanged. Take a moment to explore your past experiences with animals; have you ever had that “awestruck” moment where you just felt at peace sharing space with a non-human creature? This week’s blog is filled with pictures of the pets that our therapists and staff at Angelus have at home. We would love to hear about your companion and how they have helped your life.

Erin’s pup Rosie looking all sad & cuddly

It can be helpful to work with your therapist to find out what type of interaction with animals might be best-suited for you at this phase in your life. Can you handle a lot of companionship AND responsibility? Maybe an animal adoption is in your future. Want a pet at home, but with a little less daily responsibility? Maybe a cat is right for you. Or if you feel like having an animal at home isn’t an option, there are so many volunteering opportunities to consider.

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services

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