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Animal Therapy: An Evolving Practice in Coping and Health Aid

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Mental Health Awareness Month, observed during the month of May, aims to publicly recognize mental and behavioral health issues in order to help reduce stigma and promote mental wellbeing. These initiatives could be met by using an interactive and friendly intervention: animal-assisted therapy. 

According to Medical News Today, “animal therapy … refers to the use of animals as a way to help people cope with and recover from some physical and mental health conditions.” In this process, individuals have the option to choose from a variety of animals that vary in both shape and size. They may include dogs, cats, birds and horses. Through this search, people are able to find an animal that is best tailored to their needs in order to develop a human-animal bond. In veterinary practices, this bond is important, serving as a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship that influences the behavior and well-being of both counterparts.

In a typical animal therapy session, patients are joined by the animal of their choice and its handler, the owner of the animal. Under a doctor’s guidance, the handler works with the doctor to provide the type of aid their patient requires. 

To fully participate in a session or therapy program, both the animal and handler are required to undergo training in the health practice.

The animal undergoes various physical exams and immunizations to ensure that its health is in the right conditions. Once the health screenings are complete, the animal trains for about two years to develop the skills necessary for their job. The handler undergoes paired obedience training with their animal. This form of testing ensures that professionalism and safety are maintained through all therapy sessions. 

Throughout the years, research has shown that animal-assisted therapy has been found beneficial to ease issues regarding physical and mental health. 

In “Animal-Assisted Interventions as Innovative Tools for Mental Health,” researchers like Francesca Cirulli and her team have found that incorporating animal therapy has positive outcomes in multiple age groups. Among the elderly, dog-mediated intervention programs have been shown to reduce psychological symptoms related to loneliness, depression and stress. In children, the same programs have been linked to beneficial effects on self-esteem and empathy. 

Similarly, studies like those highlighted by Kristine Howell-Newman and Robert Goldman in “Marketing Animal Facilitated Therapy” provide evidence for positive outcomes in physical health. Animals help encourage physical activity in the presence of an individual who may be recovering from an injury or medical procedure, and therefore their presence offers opportunities for exercise that may target speech practice and purposeful movement.  

To encourage such healthy habits applied to both mental and physical health, UCI’s Center for Student Wellness and Health Promotion has hosted pet therapy sessions throughout the course of almost every academic year. Aimed to provide the opportunity for students to destress from their academic and personal lives, the events have shown to serve the university’s student body in an impactful way.

For individuals in Irvine, pet therapy programs can also be accessed through the UCI Medical Center. With their official Pet Therapy Program, patients can be connected to pets on hospital grounds as they undergo treatment. As well as reducing patient loneliness, stress and anxiety, a pet’s presence can also help improve vital signs and reduce the need for medication. 

Korintia Espinoza is a STEM Staff Writer. She can be reached at