Pets and PTSD: How Animals Help with Trauma

pets and ptsd

PTSD Overview

Whether it’s due to the experience of a horrific event while serving in the military or being involved in a traumatic car accident, there are millions of Americans who deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on an everyday basis. PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event such as a serious accident, terrorist act, natural disaster, combat, rape, or personal assault.

Individuals with PTSD have intense and disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their specific experiences that likely last long after the event has happened. They can be triggered at any moment. Many relive the moment or event through continuous nightmares and flashbacks. PTSD does not discriminate by culture, ethnicity or race, as it can happen to anyone.

Symptoms of PTSD typically can be placed into the following four categories: Intrusive thoughts, avoiding reminders, negative thoughts and feelings, and arousal and reactive symptoms.

  • Intrusive thoughts are involuntary memories or dreams, as well as flashbacks of the traumatic event. Some flashbacks may feel so real that people feel as if they’re re-living the experience.
  • Avoiding reminders of the event may include avoiding certain people, places, activities, and situations that may bring back memories of the event.
  • Negative thoughts and feelings may include ongoing distorted beliefs, ongoing fear, anger, and guilt or shame.
  • Arousal and reactive symptoms could include irritability, outbursts, reckless behavior, and difficulty concentrating or sleeping.

Many people who experience a traumatic event may exhibit symptoms like the ones described for a couple of days after the event. If these symptoms continue for months or even years following the trauma, that’s when a person is considered as having PTSD.

The trouble with PTSD is that the symptoms it causes will also occur with related conditions such as depression, and can lead to substance abuse, memory problems and other mental and physical health issues. It can be extremely difficult to live a normal life while dealing with PTSD. It can make everyday tasks much more difficult. Studies have shown that one thing that helps minimize the effects of PTSD is interaction with animals! This is where PTSD pet therapy comes from.

What is PTSD Pet Therapy?

You or someone you know may have PTSD and may be struggling with getting over it and suppressing the symptoms that come with it. Have you tried or are you familiar with pet therapy? Pet therapy is a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal. This interaction also involves the animal’s handler. The purpose of pet therapy is to help someone recover from or cope with a health problem or mental disorder — in this case, PTSD.

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

What Are the Steps Involved in PTSD Pet Therapy?

Your doctor or therapist that’s managing your 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 your doctor or therapist to help you reach your goals. The first step in pet therapy is making sure to select a suitable animal that you feel comfortable with. Therapy is unlikely to go well if you and the animal don’t share a connection and feel comfortable with one another.

There are many organizations that will train and connect volunteer owners and pets with healthcare providers to make things easier. 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, an evaluation of the animal’s temperament and behavior with the handler, 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?

Just like any kind of therapy, there are many benefits to pet therapy. Pet therapy builds on the human-animal bond. For someone with PTSD, interacting with a friendly animal can help soothe many physical and mental issues, including reduction of blood pressure and improvement of overall cardiovascular health. It releases certain endorphins that allow the individual to feel calm and at ease. This helps alleviate pain, improve your overall psychological state and reduce stress.

Depending on the causes of a person’s PTSD, pet therapy can be used in several ways to accomplish different goals. Establishing defined objectives with a doctor or therapist are 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 include making you happier, lessening depression and anxiety, improving one’s outlook on life, decreasing loneliness, and improving social skills.

Pet therapy builds on the pre-existing human-animal bond. Interacting with a friendly pet can help many physical and mental issues. It can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It can also release endorphins that produce a calming effect. This can help alleviate pain, reduce stress, and improve your overall psychological state.

Learn More About How Animals Help Humans