Canine and Equine Therapy for Veterans with PTSD

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The US Army is increasing use of animal therapy, specifically with dogs and horses, to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Army Surgeon General’s special assistant for mental health, Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie MD, who spoke about the program at a 2010 National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Convention symposium titled “Veterans and Military Mental Health.”

According to the report “Depression: Gaps and Guideposts”, about 20 percent of people living with depression have used animal therapy in treatment, with 54% finding it “extremely” or “quite a bit” useful.

The therapy deserves more research, says Ira Katz MD, senior consultant for mental health services in the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Across the board, more research is needed on evidence-based treatment to provide a broad range of options.”

Read: PTSD, Depression Hurts Soldiers Home from Iraq, Afghanistan

According to the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA), equine therapy uses two types of programs to support patients, which include not only war veterans with PTSD, but also at-risk youth, victims of violence, and people with other mental health challenges such as autism and attention deficit disorder. The therapy can also be used for other disabling conditions such as multiple sclerosis, brain and spinal cord injuries, amputations, and stroke patients.

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Equine facilitated learning (EFL) is an “educational approach that includes equine facilitated activities incorporating the experience of equine/human interaction in an environment of learning or self-discovery.” According to Franklin Levinson of the “Way of the Horse”, just being around a horse changes brainwave patterns and promotes a calming effect, stopping people from being fixated on past or negative events.

Equine facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) may include mutually respectful equine activities, such as handling, grooming, riding, and driving horses. It is facilitated by licensed, credentialed professionals.

Read: Can Adopting a Pet Help You Live Longer

According to a recent NY Times article, “For the Battle-Scarred, Comfort at Leash’s End”, specially trained psychiatric service dogs are being used for veterans reintegrating into society after discharge from Iraq and Afghanistan. Chris Goehner, a 25-year-old Iraq war veteran, reported that he was able to cut his doses of anxiety and sleep medications in half after getting one of the service dogs. He also saw an end to his night terrors and suicidal thoughts.

Under a bill written by Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, veterans with PTSD will get service dogs as part of a pilot program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs in an effort to provide more support for animal therapy in severe emotional disorders for soldiers. The dogs, provided by the Psychiatric Service Dog Society, are trained to help jolt a soldier from a flashback, dial 911 on the phone, and even sense a panic attack before it starts.

The dog also provides emotional comfort, and can help a veteran with a sense of responsibility, optimism, and self-awareness.

The 2010 NAMI convention symposium was broadcast live on C-SPAN.

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