Cats, camels and the Jesus lizard: the rise of pet therapy | Mental Health

IThis is the dilemma of cat lovers. You buy stinky food pouches around the house, clean out litter boxes, and spend hundreds of dollars on vet bills. In return, the feline companion scratches your furniture and arms, deposits dead rodents on the carpet, and sometimes disappears for three days.

“With humans, it’s the survivors’ thinking: If I’m nice to people, they’ll be nice to me,” says Yoni Yehuda, an Israeli psychotherapist, as her cat Jack Daniels licks water from a jug placed on his desk.

With animals, he says, there is no apparent counterpart. We help them for purer reasons, often with no expectation of return. “It gives something that is very clean on the inside.”

This concept is the basis of the professor’s work – providing therapy to people with mental disorders by asking them to take care of animals. There is a healing, he believes, deeply rooted in the animal-human relationship. “The first animal-assisted psychotherapist was God,” he says, as a parrot pecks at the screen of his office window.

Outside, a llama and a camel bask on the sand under the sun. Yehuda has hundreds of animals, from horses and turtles to an exotic water-running Jesus lizard and a South American ring-tailed coati. Most have been rescued and for various reasons cannot be returned to the wild or relocated.

Yehuda says animal-assisted therapy is a “new, vibrant, and dynamic” area of ​​psychotherapy. Photography: Quique Kierszenbaum

Yehuda’s center and work is at the experimental – even controversial – end of a scientific field that has become increasingly established and popular around the world.

Animals were used in mental health facilities in the late 18th century to encourage socialization. Today, a patient can have time to pet a dog, which reduces stress. Practitioners say the animals can also motivate patients to stay in treatment or be used as a metaphor for their own struggles. Some traumatized people prefer not to interact with another person at all.

Over the past few years, analyzes of dozens of studies indicate that animals in therapy may have a limited but positive impact on a range of disorders, including depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse.

“A lot of the studies aren’t of very high quality, but it gives good insight,” says Karin Hediger, a psychotherapist and researcher at the University of Basel, Switzerland.

For two years, Hediger has run a center housing horses, rabbits and chickens, working with children and adults with psychological problems. She discovered that animals can break down barriers with patients who struggle to understand how they feel or even how they act.

If his patients show aggression or frustration, a specially trained therapy horse can read their body language and respond, often backing off. “The customer realizes that something is going on,” says Hediger.

A dog and a bird at the center of Yehuda
The Yehuda center has remained open throughout the pandemic. Photography: Quique Kierszenbaum

Some patients do not speak. In this case, she says, “It’s perfect to work with animals, because they too are non-verbal.”

As the field grows, an umbrella group, the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations (IAHAIO), has sought to promote more and better research.

“There are effects, and they are scientifically proven. But many of the effects are very difficult to prove statistically because they are at the emotional level”, explains the president, Professor Marie-José Enders-Slegers.

“Emotionally, you see [patients] are relaxed, they have fun, they are peaceful and they have joy. And that’s such a fantastic thing.

IAHAIO has worked to professionalize the field, implementing professional and ethical guidelines. He banned therapy with exotic species, such as monkeys and reptiles, not only because of the potential dangers, but also the risks of communicable diseases.

Captive dolphin therapy, in particular, has been condemned by many in the community as inhumane pseudoscience, with little quality research to back it up.

Yehuda is somewhat of a non-conformist. In his therapy center in a settlement in the occupied West Bank, he developed his own methods, working with both domestic and wild animals.

He started his career using himself as a patient. In 1987, while a parachutist, his right side was paralyzed and he was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. When he was injured again after being shot by a Palestinian militant, his mental state deteriorated.

“I started practicing on myself and trying to understand my feelings, my being,” he recalls.

Yehuda now has a doctorate in psychology and runs a well-respected three-year course at Hebrew University. It has several self-designed methods, normally using particular animals for different conditions.

Yehuda
Yehuda uses particular animals for different conditions. Photography: Quique Kierszenbaum

With phobias, he has a program with stick insects, butterflies and worms. “If we have feeding issues, like anorexia and bulimia, we have a special method for working with iguanas.”

Its center has remained open throughout the pandemic in a limited capacity.

One of his patients, who requests anonymity, says he “started to stop working” after fighting for the Israeli army in Gaza during the 2014 war. Sleeping all day and awake all at night, he “was about to be hospitalized”.

When he registered at the center, he expected to be asked questions about his feelings. Instead, Yehuda told him to take care of the goats. “I had no interest in animals. I sat for hours with the goats,” he recalls walking around the paddock. “It exhausted me physically, helped me sleep,” he adds. After several weeks he approached Yehuda because he felt ready to talk, and months later he is still helping out at the center.

Yehuda says animal-assisted therapy is a “new, vibrant, and dynamic” area of ​​psychotherapy, but his work is very old, even instinctive.

His goal is to make people feel like they have a purpose in life, “even if it’s just giving a cat water.”

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