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The use of pets for assisting patients with PTSD is becoming more common due to a number of success stories. At the time of writing (May 2010) a test program is in the works to provide psychiatric service dogs to veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. Under a bill written by Senator Al Franken, veterans with PTSD will get a service dog as part of the program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
An article by Janie Lorber from the New York Times has shed some light on the affects of animals on PTSD patients. "Just weeks after Chris Goehner, 25, an Iraq war veteran, got a dog, he was able to cut in half the dose of anxiety and sleep medications he took for post-traumatic stress disorder." Another patient in the article goes on to claim they stopped their medications completely after being given their pet. Dogs are not the only animals involved in PTSD treatment, although they are the most common. Some other pets that have been used or are being evaluated for their beneficial effects are cats, horses and birds.
A study by the US Army, carried out by Craig Love, a research psychologist, and Joan Esnayra, founder of the Psychiatric Service Dog Society looked at the affects dogs have on veterans recovering from PTSD. Love and Esnayra surveyed 39 patients who were given service dogs and found that 82 percent reported a reduction in symptoms.
They also report that the dogs can be trained to nudge their owners when they show signs of a panic attack and that they can help calm the patients by reacting calmly or not reacting at all to something the person perceives as a threat. With the reported success of the study, the Defense Department is giving the two $300,000 to conduct more studies at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington.
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Pets have been known to provide several benefits to their owners. Research has shown that they can lower blood pressure, lessen anxiety, reduce stress, boost immune systems and help with exercise through taking the pet for a walk. Pets are used to treat patients of all ages, not just adults with post traumatic stress disorder.
Pets require a lot of care such as grooming and feeding, all of which can take the patient's focus off themselves. For the person with PTSD this reduces the amount of time spent rehashing their traumatic experience.
For larger dogs or animals there is the added sense of security once a bond is established. Horses mirror a person's mood, they respond negatively to negative emotions. This teaches the patient that their behavior can affect others, making it necessary to modify how they act in order to work well with the animal.
The core issues that are worked on with pet assisted therapy are confidence, self-view/concept, communication skills, trust, anxiety reduction, decreased isolation, self-acceptance, impulse control, and social skills.
Another benefit of pet assisted therapy for PTSD is that animals can be used as an alternative to medication. Some people prefer to avoid drugs, especially parents regarding their children. The therapy is viewed by some as a safer alternative because medications can have side-effects. It is also seen as a healthier option due to the increased activity required in the therapy. But it's also not uncommon for people to use medication in combination with pet assisted and other therapies.
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Military.com - http://www.military.com/news/article/army-studies-use-of-dogs-for-ptsd.html
Health benefits of pets - http://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/features/health-benefits-of-pets?page=1
Department of Veterans Affairs - http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/featurearticle_April-PTSD.asp
National Institute of Health - http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2009/February/feature1.htm