As the health benefits of pet ownership become more widely understood, there has been a greater effort to include pets in health research and practices. Involving animals as a type of therapy for the sick or elderly is becoming more popular. Many pet owners volunteer their time and their companion pet in nursing or other rehabilitation centers. There is even a formal process (administered by the Delta Society) for screening animal companions and training their owners. After witnessing the positive effect such volunteer visits have on residents and patients, medical professionals (such as clinical psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and nurses) have begun to find ways to make interaction with animals a formal part of professional treatment. Some mental health facilities now provide animal-assisted therapy.
If short, occasional visits with animals are helpful for a person with special needs, then an animal's constant company might be even more beneficial for that individual. Service animals are now helping more than just people with physical disabilities. The use of psychiatric service dogs is growing. These dogs assist people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, fear of open places (agoraphobia), and anxiety. Psychiatric service dogs are specifically trained to meet their human companion's needs. For example, they might help distract a person with autism from a repetitive behavior or help their owner recover from a schizophrenic episode. Often, these dogs are specifically trained to create a protective, nurturing environment for their patients. It is also thought that the relationship between the animal and the owner is, in itself, therapeutic in many cases.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Lynette A. Hart, PhD