A man hugs his pet dog on the couch.

Pets and PTSD: How Animals Help with Trauma

Millions of Americans live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a psychiatric condition that occurs in those who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. Individuals with PTSD may experience intense thoughts and feelings related to their specific experiences, often long after their specific traumatic event has occurred.

What is PTSD Pet Therapy?

Studies show that one way to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD is frequent interaction with animals. Pet therapy is a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal, with additional support provided by the animal’s handler. The purpose of pet therapy is to help someone recover from or cope with mental anguish.

The most common animals used for therapy are dogs and cats, although fish, guinea pigs, and horses may also be utilized, depending on the circumstance. The type of animal chosen usually depends on the treatment plan set in place between the patient and their therapist, as well as personal comfort levels and preferences. Another name for pet therapy is Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), which specifically refers to a formal, structured set of sessions that help people reach specific goals throughout their treatment process.

What Are the Steps Involved in PTSD Pet Therapy?

The doctor or therapist managing treatment will administer pet therapy. A trained handler, who is often the pet’s owner, will bring the animal to every meeting and work with the doctor or therapist to help reach specified goals. The first step in pet therapy is making sure to select a suitable animal for the patient. Therapy is unlikely to go well if the animal and patient are unable to build a connection and become comfortable with each other. Dogs best suited to connect with PTSD sufferers include Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Poodles, since these breeds are known for their loyalty, loving and nurturing nature, and calmness.

Many organizations train and connect volunteer owners and pets with healthcare providers to make things easier for those seeking help. Prior to participating in pet therapy, an animal and its handler must first fulfill certain requirements, which include a physical examination of the animal to confirm that it’s been immunized and is free of disease, an obedience training course to ensure proper animal control, an instructional course to teach the trainer about interaction with other people, and a certification from the sponsoring organization. Once the animal and handler have gone through this process, they are assigned for therapy sessions based on an individual’s needs.

What Are the Benefits of PTSD Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy builds on the human-animal bond. For someone with PTSD, interacting with a service dog can help soothe many physical and mental symptoms, including high blood pressure and poor heart health. Interacting with a therapy pet also releases certain endorphins that allow the individual to feel calm and at ease. This helps to alleviate pain, improve overall psychological state, and reduce stress.

Depending on the causes of a person’s PTSD, a service dog can be used in several ways to accomplish different goals. Establishing defined objectives with a doctor or therapist is a vital part of this process, as progress can then be tracked to see if there is a significant change from beginning to end. Goals related to PTSD pet therapy can include making the patient happier, lessening depression and anxiety, improving one’s outlook on life, decreasing loneliness, and improving social skills.