There is a lot to be said for the therapeutic value of animals, creatures big and small can play a large role in calming and comforting those suffering from mental illness. The unconditional love of a dog is soothing to the soul. Pet Therapy has become commonly used and is also known as Animal-assisted Therapy or ATT. While cats and dogs are the most frequently used animals, horses and other large animals also have their place in therapy. The endorphin-releasing treatment aids in alleviating mental pain, and stress and improves your overall psychological state. Being around animals can increase your self-esteem and lessen depression and anxiety. Having a furry friend as a companion also combats loneliness.

Kirsten Hunter of Hunter Psychology in Toowoomba gave her professional opinion on this type of therapy. Kirsten is the author of Sign Posts for Living which captures over 20 years of psychology practice and works with clients based in Toowoomba and the surrounding rural communities.

“Companion therapy involves having the connection and often physical touch of an animal, to help us with our mental health,” said Kirsten.

“We can feel very alone in our emotional state and having a companion animal takes away the pressure to have to open up with words or be able to manage a reciprocal relationship, we can just reach out and have the comfort of these beloved animals. We are able to receive their care and their attention. We are able to soothe our human need for touch.

Research has found that the soothing presence of an animal can reduce our state from one of arousal and anxiety to feeling calmer and relaxed. The heart rate slows, our breathing rate stabilizes, and our blood pressure reduces, these are all beneficial for our physical well-being as well as our psychological well-being.

Many nursing homes and childcare centres are now incorporating companion pets to harness these therapeutic benefits”.

We came across an interesting article in The New York Times that reported on a study done in Norway. The researchers engaged 19 participants, each having a psychiatric ailment. Their suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses was being treated solely with antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs and mood stabilisers.

Two-thirds of the group were asked to spend 3-4 hours a week on a farm with horses, sheep and cattle. The remaining one-third was the control group that continued to receive traditional psychiatric treatment. On completion of the study, the farm group reported significant improvement in their mental health and coping skills. Those that were allocated to only psychiatric care needed ongoing treatment and didn’t report as higher levels of emotional satisfaction and wellbeing.

In rural and remote areas, we naturally have more access to farm animals and should take the opportunity to spend time with them to improve our mental health. We also know that taking care of another being allows for an important connection and is a rewarding feeling. Include animal therapy, in a medical environment or at home, into your self-help techniques, we know you will see a benefit from spending time with creatures great and small.