Animals in Trauma Recovery: Formal Classifications

A Look at the Different Roles an Animal Can Play in Trauma Recovery

There are countless benefits to owning a pet. Therefore, it is no surprise, that there are countless “roles” that an animal can play in an owner’s life. For a long time now, some of these roles have come to be quite formalized. Think of how long dogs have been “put to work” in the medical community. We have all become accustomed to seeing-eye dogs and service dogs for people with other physical disabilities. Dogs have even been trained to sniff out cancer or high blood sugar in diabetics. These dogs provide their owners with an invaluable service that allows them to function in society where they otherwise may not be able to. Recently, the psychological community has begun to take notice. Countless studies have shown that animals can be just as beneficial for owners when they are put to work for patients with psychological disabilities as they are for patients with physical disabilities. This is especially true for patients recovering from traumatic experiences. A recent post talked about the use of Animal Assisted Interventions is trauma treatment. Many psychiatrists and psychologists are now coming to see this as just the beginning. Mental health professionals are now starting to “prescribe” pet ownership for longer-term treatment of their patients’ trauma.

Service Animals

There are several ways in which animals are used as long-term therapy “tools.” There are therefore several formal classifications of trauma healing animals. The first of these is what is known as “service animals.” These are animals that have very specialized training. These animals undergo extensive training with and without their owner to be able to perform certain, very specific tasks that their owner cannot otherwise accomplish. Service animals, therefore, have full public access rights. A person with a disability can take their service animal anywhere at any time. Service animals for trauma first came into use largely through the military. They were a great pioneer of using service dogs for veterans who were suffering from combat PTSD. Today service dogs and other animals are being used to help treat trauma from a variety of experiences such as rape, assault, and domestic abuse (American Kennel Club).

Emotional Support Animals

“Emotional support animals” (ESA) fall into a slightly different category than service animals. Whereas service animals have very specialized training to perform tasks for their owner, ESAs are only there to provide comfort to support to their owner. This means that they do not have full public access rights. However, ESAs do have two very important legal rights that other animals do not have. They are legally entitled to fly in the cabin with their owner, and live in what is otherwise considered no-pet housing. Airlines and the housing authority do have to right to seek verification that an animal is, in fact, an ESA before granting these rights, however. This verification usually comes in the form of a letter from a physician or mental health professional that provides certification that the owner really does have a mental health disability that limits at least one life activity (American Kennel Club).

Therapy Animals

The final classification of therapeutic animals for trauma is what is unimaginatively known as “therapy animals.” These animals have no special rights or access privileges. These are the animals that are commonly seen with a handler in an actual therapy setting, such a hospital or mental health clinic. Do not be fooled by their lack of special training or rights, however. These animals often provide an invaluable service by entering the therapeutic session while it is going on to help calm the patient from any discomfort they might be feeling (American Kennel Club).

As you can see, there are several ways that an animal can help its owner in the therapeutic process. While the above titles and categories may seem quite formal, there is often no real difference in the service that the animal in providing for the owner. The real goal of all of these animals is to comfort and support the traumatized patient through the tough times. There is no better comfort than that you get from an animal. That is why the work done at Pets Empower is so important. Owning a pet after trauma has been shown to be a long-term and effective healing tool. This healing is only exponentially magnified if it is the same pet that the owner had before or even during the trauma. Imagine for a moment that you have just gotten out of a domestic violence setting only to be forced to start your life all over again with nothing. Now imagine the joy that a familiar face, touch, or snuggle would give you. I myself can imagine no better comfort or healing tool.