If your teen needs therapy, you have probably discussed the different types available with his or her mental health care provider. You might have looked into cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy and support group therapy. One possibility that you might not have explored is animal-assisted therapy. Check out this list of ways that animal-assisted therapy can be beneficial to teens struggling with a variety of issues.
A Dog Might Raise Oxytocin Levels and Reduce Social Anxiety
Do you feel happy when you come home to your dog’s wagging tail and cold nose? There is some evidence that dogs can raise their owners’ oxytocin levels, which make the human in the relationship feel less stressed. Oxytocin can also reduce social anxiety, suggests Science Daily, by turning “fight or flight” into “tend and befriend.”
If your teenager struggles with anxiety, particularly if it’s exacerbated by social situations, spending time with a dog might help. If you don’t have a dog, maybe your teen can benefit from snuggling with and walking a neighbor’s dog. Or you can contact an agency that provides therapy dogs to see if your child would be a good candidate to receive a support dog. A dog in your family could do you some good, too, if you’re struggling with stress.
Pet Therapy Can Improve Physical Health
For anyone struggling with a mental health issue, keeping themselves physically healthy can be a challenge. When an animal is an integrated part of a therapy program, the patient can see some physical benefits that don’t require doing anything other than petting or spending time with the animal. For example, your teen might enjoy benefits like lower blood pressure and reduced physical pain. He or she might even need a smaller dosage of medication that has been prescribed to combat depression or anxiety. (It should go without saying that you should never attempt to adjust your teen’s prescribed medications without specific advice from a medical or mental health professional!)
There’s no rule that the pet has to be a dog or a cat. Many different types of animals can be trained to be good therapy pets. Horses, guinea pigs, and even scaly or feathered animals can bring about benefits.
Horses Might Help Teens With Autism
If your teen is on the autism spectrum, horseback riding might be just what the doctor ordered. The Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation explains that kids with autism can find it hard to bond with humans, but when they learn to take care of a horse, they begin to create a bond. As they progress into riding, they begin experiencing the feeling of participating in teamwork, which is something that those with autism can find difficult. Riding can also stimulate sensory perceptors in a way that’s not too overwhelming.
If your teen has ASD, look into whether equine therapy is available in your area. Taking advantage of scholarships can make it affordable and might make a difference in the way that your child communicates and enjoys forging a connection with another living being.
Animals Can Help Those With Substance Abuse Issues
You might already know that a key component of treating those with substance addiction is often group therapy. Adding an animal or animals, particularly dogs, to the mix, can help participants open up about their experiences and past traumas that might have made them more prone to the addiction in the first place. This can make recovery go more smoothly and prevent a relapse in the future. The way it works is that trained dogs (or other animals) are introduced to the group and those interested can pet, brush, and otherwise interact with the pets. This can raise endorphin levels and make the participants feel good about communicating and sharing.
This is a strategy that is used in other countries, too. For example, at a rehabilitation center in Thailand, participants interact with elephants and monkeys. These animals have a similar effect on the people struggling with addiction and substance abuse, and interacting with them can allow people to move more quickly and effectively through recovery.
Animal Therapy Can Help Those With PTSD
Does your teen or another loved one suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD? This is a condition that can be caused by a traumatic event. It’s common among war veterans, but a teenager could develop it after a car accident, an abuse situation, or any other trauma in life. There is some evidence that having a dog or using a dog in animal-assisted therapy can help people with PTSD overcome their trauma and live a more fulfilling life.
For example, many with PTSD are lonely and reclusive, because leaving the house and interacting with people carries the possibility that their issues will be triggered. A dog or other pet can coax people with this condition out of their shells and can also combat loneliness.
You Can Get Animal-Assisted Therapy for Your Teen
There are several ways to get your teen involved in animal-assisted therapy. One of the most well-known is to apply for and acquire a service or therapy animal. There are some differences between the two types of animals. A service animal is legally allowed almost anywhere his or her handler is allowed. So if your teen qualifies for a service animal, they’ll be able to go on airplanes, to church, to restaurants, and to other places where animals generally are not allowed. If not, a therapy animal can be a great addition to your family, but it will not be allowed places that other pets can’t go.
Another way is to talk to your child’s mental health care team about ways to integrate animal-assisted therapy into your teen’s treatment plan. This can include one-on-one sessions, an animal included in group therapy sessions, or simply making arrangements for your teen to spend time with someone’s pet, if you don’t have your own.
As with any type of therapy, animal-assisted therapy is not right for everyone. Talk to your child’s mental health care provider to see whether exposure to a family pet, a therapy animal, or a service animal is right for your teen’s situation.