For years, animals have been used with great benefit in the treatment of the aged and the terminally ill. Now Animal Assisted Therapy is benefitting sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Soldiers share a deep bond based on the belief that none but a fellow soldier can understand what is seen and experienced by soldiers. So when one of that small cadre suffers in a way that feels apart even from his/her companions, the sense of isolation and anxiety can be extreme. Helping soldiers who are suffering as a result of the horrors of war has been attempted through counseling, medication, and partnering with other military veterans. Nevertheless, the healing process for PTSD has continued to be prolonged and lonely. This explains why doctors are enthusiastic about the positive results they are seeing with the relatively new treatment of PTSD through animal assisted therapy.
While the majority of cases involve pairing PTSD patients with dogs, the treatment has also seen positive results when patients interact with other animals like horses, cats, birds and, wait for it – dolphins. Pets have measurable positive impacts on the humans who care for them. Pets: reduce stress, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, and promote exercise. Now to that list can be added: help PTSD patients to reduce their symptoms.
One way that animals serve the soldier patient is by demanding care. Animals require attention. They are dependant upon someone for their food, for their grooming, and, often, for their exercise. For the soldier troubled by recurring thoughts of a traumatizing experience, it is helpful to have an animal near at hand which requires the focus to be shifted away from self and toward them and their needs.
Secondly, animals are wonderfully accepting creatures. Unlike humans, animals are not at all prejudiced toward differences among people. Relationally speaking, the animal neither notices nor cares if the human has been handicapped or is in some way impaired. The use of prostheses, wheelchairs, or crutches holds no attached meaning for a pet. For the PTSD patient, pets are the ever-affectionate friend determined to give and receive comfort and attention. In the case of dogs and cats, they are the warm body that curls up beside you when life, or your past, threatens to overwhelm you.
In the case of horses, there is another benefit. Anyone who has ever taken a Saturday trail ride has been told to relax because the horse perceives and reacts to the emotional state of its rider. In fact, horses don’t simply react; instead they reflect the mood of the person handling them. If the human’s mood is positive and relaxed the horse will mimic that attitude. Conversely, if the human’s attitude is negative the horse will adopt a negative mood. This can be helpful for the PTSD patient as it helps them to recognize how their own moods and attitudes affect those around them. Many treatment centers use equine-assisted therapy to treat a number of dual diagnoses.
On the other hand, dogs can be trained to interact more proactively. When the patient exhibits evidence of high stress or anxiety, dogs are conditioned to come alongside and give the patient a gentle poke. Often simply having a calm animal nearby when the patient feels threatened acts to soothe their fears.
The results of Animal Assisted Therapy in the treatment of PTSD patients has seen significant results. In one study of the effect of dogs with patients, psychologists noted an 82% reduction in symptoms. One particular case noted that interacting with the dog for as little as one week, enabled a patient to decrease the amount of anxiety and sleep medications by half. Encouraged by findings so far, the Department of Defense is investing in the treatment to the tune of $300,000. Further studies are to be conducted at Walter Reed Medical Center.