TUESDAY, Dec. 27, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- No doubt about it. People have a deep and complex relationship with animals, which elicit a wide range of emotional responses by their very presence and interactions with human beings.
But these days, animals are being involved in human therapy in innovative ways that depart drastically from traditional notions of animal-assisted therapy.
"Most people think of nursing homes, and people going in to cheer up the elderly," said Bill Kueser, vice president of marketing for the Delta Society, a nonprofit group that promotes animal-assisted therapy. "It's really become much more than that."
Animals have become part of many types of psychotherapy, physical therapy and crisis response, Kueser said. And it's not simply using a therapy dog to calm or soothe a person, either, he said.
Cats and parrots, for instance, are being incorporated into therapy for people who tend to act out because of aggression or impulse control issues, Kueser said.
"The animal will stay near that person until the person starts upsetting the animal, and then they'll move away," he said. "The doctor then can point out the effect the patient's behavior had on the animal. They seem to be able to work through aggression issues more effectively that way."
Larger animals also are being used in therapy. Horses are helping troubled teenagers better control their behavior, according to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. The kids gain self-esteem from working with such a large animal, but they also learn to regulate their emotions so they don't "spook" the horse.
People undergoing physical therapy to regain motor skills essential to living also are receiving help from animals. "Instead of moving pegs around on a peg board, the patient might be asked to buckle or unbuckle a leash, or brush an animal," Kueser said.
Even normally calm people who are facing stressful situations are getting help these days from animals.
One recent study found therapy dogs effective in easing the anxiety of people waiting to have an MRI -- and their help didn't involve the side effects that often accompany the use of anti-anxiety medication.
"We found that people who had spent time with a therapy dog were calmer during the test than those who hadn't," said Dr. Richard Ruchman, chairman of radiology at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, N.J.
Other non-traditional settings also have been utilizing animals to help keep people calm. Courtrooms are one example. "There are more and more animals allowed in court," Kueser said. "Somebody might be very upset about having to get up and testify, particularly if the person who victimized them is there. Animals have been shown to help calm people down in that setting."
Therapy dogs also are being incorporated into crisis relief efforts, said Amy Rideout, director and president of HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, a group that makes therapy dogs available at crisis scenes.
HOPE was formed shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when social workers found that therapy dogs were helpful in getting tough Ground Zero crisis responders to open up about the toll their grisly work had been taking on their psyches, Rideout said.
"They don't want to show stress. They want to find their buddies," Rideout said of the 9/11 responders. "Many knew something was wrong, but they didn't want to talk to a mental health professional about it."
But when a therapy dog accompanied the therapist, the responders tended to open up more frequently. "The dogs made a bridge between the mental health professional and the person," she explained.
Though a wide variety of animals are utilized in therapy work, dogs still tend to bear the biggest burden. For example, dogs make up 95 percent of the pet partner teams registered with the Delta Society, Kueser said.
Part of this has to do with the adaptability and portability of dogs, Rideout said. Dogs have become so domesticated that they are easier to introduce into a wide variety of settings.
But that domestication also has forged a deep bond with humans that makes dogs particularly helpful in therapy. Interaction with dogs, Kueser said, has been found to lower blood pressure, steady rapid breathing, reduce levels of stress hormones and increase levels of calming hormones.
"There's something very primal about the companionship of a dog," Ruchman said.
The Delta Society offers a list of books, articles and research on animal-assisted therapy.