What Is Zootherapy?

Drue Tibbits

Zootherapy is the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions using animals. It is a broad term that includes almost any type of treatment that utilizes the effect an animal or animal product may have on a human. Some therapies, such as pet therapy, rely only on the presence of an animal to affect a result in the patient. Other therapies, such as leech or maggot therapies, use the animal to perform a medically beneficial procedure. A few zootherapies use animal venom to treat disease.

Children's zootherapy sometimes employs zootherapy.
Children's zootherapy sometimes employs zootherapy.

Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, uses a variety of animals to help treat patients. Not only do dogs have a calming effect on some people, but the actions of petting or grooming them can help improve fine motor control. Some patients bond with their therapy dogs; this emotional connection is useful for patients dealing with traumatic events. Health care workers sometimes use dogs as a type of social therapy when working with elderly patients or those suffering from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

Horses are often used for pet therapy with children.
Horses are often used for pet therapy with children.

Horses and dolphins are sometimes used with children’s zootherapy. Therapists use the animals to encourage interaction with autistic children. The animals may also help young patients with psychological issues, teaching them valuable lessons about trust and compassion. Horse therapy can be useful to children and adults with mobility issues; riding horses can help improve balance, coordination, and muscle tone.

Zootherapy includes using fish both for their calming influence and for their ability to clean skin. Doctors frequently have fish aquariums in their waiting rooms to help patients stay calm. Patients sometimes have lower blood pressures after watching fish swimming. A few types of fish eat dead skin cells and improve some skin conditions. This type of therapy, called ichthiotherapy, may treat eczema and psoriasis.

Maggots are an effective zootherapy for aid in wound healing. As maggots only eat dead flesh, they are extremely efficient at removing gangrenous tissue while leaving healthy tissue in place. Leeches, too, perform an important medical function. In order to feed, they emit an anticoagulant substance that keeps blood from clotting. This feature is useful in reconstructive surgery in areas such as the eyes, where blood coagulation could mean loss of sight.

Bee venom and bee sting therapy are two zootherapies that have little anecdotal evidence as to their effectiveness. The first uses the venom of bees, while the second involves being stung by bees. Practitioners believe compounds in the venom can treat a variety of conditions.

Dogs used in animal-assisted therapy often provide a calming effect.
Dogs used in animal-assisted therapy often provide a calming effect.

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