Therapy animals are used now to treat a host of illnesses and conditions—depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), loneliness, autism, and more. These animals are relied upon by patients to provide comfort and companionship, and they can be especially helpful for seniors who have experienced loss or children who feel anxious in certain social situations. Some assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and even schools have begun housing therapy animals, whose presence is meant to provide joy and comfort to residents and students as well as families. Mental health research into the usefulness of therapy animals is very promising, but it comes with a caveat: unlike a medication and like a human mental health professional, therapy animals can experience caregiving burnout.
There simply is not enough thorough research into how to truly avoid burnout in therapy animals, but there are some suggestions that will help you recognize if an animal involved in your loved one’s care is experiencing “caregiver burnout”.
How to Avoid Burnout in Caregiving Animals
All therapy and pet animals should be checked regularly by a veterinarian. This will keep their physical health needs in check, which reduces stress. It can also reveal signs of too much stress on the animal—weight loss, fur falling out, etc.—which could indicate the need for a change in treatment for the patient.
Mental health professionals should always be involved in the decision to get or to use a therapy animal. While getting a pet in general can help those with anxiety and depression, some people are not able to properly care for an animal or may be traumatized by an animal’s presence or needs, such as feeding, bathing, and walking. The pet, too, may suffer from this lack of care. Any animal in a caregiving situation, whether trained as therapy animal or not, deserves to have its needs looked after too.
Make sure that an animal used for therapy is trained for therapy…
Therapy animals are special animals; they must be trained and looked after carefully. A trained animal is less likely to be burned out by providing therapy, since it is trained for this purpose. This causes less stress upon the animal, prolonging its life and increasing its ability to give care. Make sure that an animal used for therapy is trained for therapy, not just housebroken or particularly nice in temperament. All animals are not suited to be therapy animals.
Do not rely on a therapy animal as the only method of treatment for serious illnesses and disorders. These animals, although useful as a tool in this sense, are their own separate creatures, and while they can help, they do not cure mental health issues alone. Always seek out counseling, and discuss medication with your doctor(s). There should be a multi-pronged plan.
Breaks are important! Therapy animals that do not receive breaks from work will experience more stress and are more likely to burn out, according to a study on therapy animals by American Humane.
Attend a therapy training class, if possible. They teach not just the therapy animal, but also the handler, how to handle interactions and tasks. Many communities offer these classes from experienced animal trainers, and they will accept animals that are adult and in good health to be trained for therapy as well.
Notice any changes in behavior. If a normally happy, pleasant, friendly animal bites at a stranger or refuses to be petted, there is something wrong that should be addressed immediately. It could be simply a bad day, but therapy animals are trained not to have those and to leave stress behind.
As a handler, be there for the animal. If you know the signs of stress or exhaustion in your animal, you are more likely to remove it from a stressful situation. Closely monitoring animal body language for signs of stress will help avoid burnout from overwork.
Caregiving and therapy animals are a complex solution to emotional issues that are often incredibly sensitive. Caring for these hardworking creatures is vital to continuing their good work. Taking steps to avoid burnout, or treat it when it happens, will improve their lives and their work with those who need care. The best rule of thumb is to ask a veterinarian (a pet’s doctor, who should know the schedule and demands on a therapy animal) and allow the animal time to relax when not working—two things that help humans avoid emotional burnout as well.
Human-Animal Solutions. Therapy Dog Training. Available at http://humananimalsolutions.com/services_training/therapydogtraining/. Retrieved February 5, 2016.
Jackson, Justine. (2012). Animal-Assisted Therapy: the Human-Animal Bond in Relation to Human Health and Wellness. Capstone Project. Winona State University. Available at http://www.winona.edu/counseloreducation/Images/Justine_Jackson_Capstone.pdf. Retrieved February 5, 2016.
Maschmedt, Lauren. (February 5, 2013). Canine Compassion: therapy dogs bring, joy, comfort, to those young and old. NBC Montana. Available at http://www.nbcmontana.com/news/Canine-Compassion-therapy-dogs-bring-joy-comfort-to-those-young-and-old/18427280. Retrieved February 5, 2016.
Phillips, Allie and McQuarrie, Diane. (2009)/ Therapy Animals Supporting Kids (TASK Program). Program Manual. American Humane. Available at http://www.americanhumane.org/assets/pdfs/children/therapy-animals-supporting-kids.pdf. Retrieved February 5, 2016.
Putz, Jordan N. (2014). Animal-Assisted Therapy and its Effects on Children in Schools. Master of Social Work Clinical Research Papers. St. Catherine University; University of St. Thomas. Paper 379. Available at http://sophia.stkate.edu/msw_papers/379http://sophia.stkate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1381&context=msw_papers Retrieved February 5, 2016.