Pet Therapy in the Treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is estimated to effect at least 7-8% of the US population at some time in their lives. Brought on by trauma, at least 60% of men and 50% of women will go through a trauma at some point in their lives with there being around 5.2 million PTSD sufferers in any given year (U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs). Those 5.2 million PTSD sufferers actually represent only a small proportion of those who have suffered a trauma.

Pet therapy has become well-known for producing good results in the mental resilience and stress levels of those who are sick or have conditions such as autism, but it is now also becoming a popular tool for the treatment of PTSD.

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Staff Sgt. Jennifer Connelly, 451st Air Expeditionary Wing Protocol office, pets Sgt. 1st Class Zeke, a combat stress dog from Kandahar Airfield's Role 2, at 73rd Expeditionary Air Control Squadron Dec. 1, 2011. As a combat stress dog, Zeke and his handler Army Sgt. Paul McCollough visit patients at Role 3 and requesting units around KAF to increase morale and welfare. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Carbajal)

One study conducted in Texas looked at therapy in children who have suffered from sexual abuse. Their trauma symptoms were looked at while in group therapy, with two of those groups including therapy dogs. It was found that the children in the groups which included the therapy dogs showed significant decreases in trauma symptoms, including anger, depression and post traumatic stress disorder. The implications from this study are that, although it would be useful to gather data from further study, animal-assisted therapy is of great use in the treatment of child sex abuse victims (of which more than 50% have PTSD or exhibit PTSD symptoms), and promotes a safe environment of trust and acceptance.

In another area with a commonly high number of PTSD victims, pet therapy is being used in the treatment of PTSD in military service men and women. Soldiers often share a bond that suggests no one but a fellow soldier can quite understand what they go through, so when someone in military service suffers from something that is outside the realm of their colleagues, feelings of isolation and depression can be very strong.

The healing process from PTSD among military service personnel has often been long and lonely, however pet therapy is increasingly being used to help shorten the healing process and promote a sense of acceptance.

One of the ways that pet therapy helps ex-soldiers is that pets require care such as feeding and walking. This provides the PTSD victim with something else to focus on rather than being insular and thinking about their trauma.

Another positive for PTSD victims is that unlike humans, animals are very accepting of people no matter what condition they are in. They don’t stare at prosthetics or pass any kind of unhelpful comment. Animals are a source of non-judgmental affection and will curl up with people when they are feeling low. The positive impacts of contact with animals such as lowering of the stress hormone cortisol have already been well-documented.

Therapy animals (dogs in particular) can be trained to be responsive to the moods of the PTSD patient. For example, if the person is exhibiting stress or anger symptoms the dog may come up and nudge the patient.

The results of the treatment of PTSD sufferers with therapy animals are looking so positive that the US Department of Defense has invested further into the use of therapy animals. Further studies are being conducted at Walter Reed Medical Center.