Quality pet care is more important than ever before in the United States, and this has spurred a wide range of specialty fields to ensure that America’s beloved companion animals receive care that is equal to the care their owners can receive.
As a part of this, there has been a growing emphasis on a number of fields that focus on the animals overall wellness, rather than simply addressing specific health problems. In addition, many pet care professionals have come to understand that behavior modification can be a vital part of ensuring that a pet remains healthy over the course of its life.
Because of this, the field of animal therapy and its specialties are becoming an increasingly central part of America’s veterinary care sector.
Additionally, the use of therapy animals in the medical sector has spurred a growing number of opportunities in the field of animal assisted therapy, which unites the veterinary and medical sectors in order to provide high quality care to those individuals who need it.
This field has shown dramatic growth in the last decade and is certain to continue to grow over the course of the next decade.
What is Animal Therapy?
Animal therapy is the use of a variety of techniques to assist in promoting proper behavior and physical or physiological wellness among animals.
Unlike many other veterinary fields, animal therapy does not involve the use of drugs or intrusive surgical procedures and can usually be conducted outside of a veterinarian’s office.
In most cases, animal therapists do not need to be licensed by their state. However, they will also be very limited in what actions they can take, as most states require that services including, but not limited to the diagnosis of an illness, prescription of drugs or the provision of veterinary advice be limited to licensed veterinarians or veterinary technicians. Because of this, an animal therapist must be certain to understand his or her rights and responsibilities under the laws of the state where they are practicing.
For example, while California does not directly regulate the practice of animal massage, Colorado requires individuals in this field to have graduated from an approved school, while Arkansas forbids the practice of animal massage except when it is being provided by a licensed veterinarian.
For this reason, any specialist in animal therapy who intends to move to another state must be certain to determine if that state’s regulations differ from their current location.
Types of Animal Therapy
There are a number of types of animal therapy, including the following examples:
- Animal massage therapy.
- Behavioral modification therapy.
- Rehabilitative therapy for injured animals.
In addition, many animal therapists focus on a certain type or breed of animal, such as equines or feline breeds. In other cases, animal therapists have a broader practice and work with all types of animals.
Animal Massage Therapy
Animal massage therapy involves using various types of physical manipulation to relieve pain and improve the animal’s physical condition. Animal massage therapists usually develop an individual plan that takes the unique needs of their animal patients into account.
Animal massage therapists may work with animals using the following methods:
- Hydrotherapy, where the animal is bathed in water to relax muscles.
- Exercise therapy of various types.
- The direct manipulation and massage of the animal’s muscles and limbs.
In many cases, the animal massage therapist will work with a licensed veterinarian and develop a course of treatment that effectively complements the vet’s plan of treatment. This can be especially useful for animals that have suffered and are recovering from traumatic injuries of various types.
Depending on the nature of the animal and the required treatment, animal massage therapists may work at their client’s home, have the client bring the animal to their place of business or have the animal stay at the clinic for an extended period of time.
Those animal therapists that work with a veterinarian may share the clinic with the vet and his or her vet techs, which can allow for a more intensive course of therapy.
Animal Behavioral Therapists
Animal behavior therapists work on modifying the behavior of pets and other animals through long-term training without recourse to use punishment or other negative reinforcement techniques. One of the main sources of the growth in employment for animal behavioral therapists has been the demand by many pet owners that their animals be trained in a humane and understanding way.
Animal behavior therapists have a wide range of specialties, many of which require different levels of education. Among the more common examples are the following:
- Animal behavioral researchers, working in a zoo, research center or other professional establishment. These individuals usually must have at least a bachelor’s degree or higher.
- Clinical behavioral specialists who work with vets and other veterinary professionals. In most cases, these individuals must have at least a bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine or animal therapy.
- Applied animal behavior therapists who focus on working with companion animals to eliminate undesired behaviors in a humane manner.
As with massage therapists, certification and licensure requirements can vary from state to state, as can the range of allowable treatments the behavior therapist can offer. The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) offers a certification in applied animal behavior that can be used to demonstrate that the individual has attained a high degree of professional skill in the field.
Animal behavior therapists work in a wide range of settings, ranging from major veterinary clinics to working as self-employed professionals who provide their services directly to individual pet owners. Because of this, many animal behavior therapists must be extremely flexible in how they approach their clients, and may be forced to work unusual hours in order to comply with their client’s work hours.
Furthermore, animal behavior therapists must be able to function in a professional manner when confronted with uncooperative or hostile animals, while ensuring that the pet’s owners understand the process of behavior modification so that they can continue to reinforce the desired behavior after the therapist leaves. Finally, in some cases, the therapist may be required to discuss options, such as euthanasia that the pet owner may be unwilling to talk about.
Animal Assisted Therapy
Unlike the above fields, animal assisted therapy makes use of animals to assist humans needing psychological or physical therapy.
It has been determined that animals can be very emotionally comforting, whether it is for an individual suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a developmentally disabled individual.
In most cases, animal assisted therapy providers have specialized in another field such as occupational therapy, psychology or nursing. Teachers working with the disabled also may use animal assisted therapy. In addition, individual caregivers may make use of animal assisted therapy when working with their charges in order to improve their emotional or physical state.
Education in Animal Assisted Therapy
Individuals using animal assisted therapy usually have specialized in another field while obtaining extra education in the area of animal assisted therapy. Because of that, the certification and licensure requirements vary widely from state to state. At the very minimum, most individuals must conform to the general licensure requirements for their profession.
For example, a psychologist who makes use of animal assisted therapy would have to be licensed or certified as a psychologist, in addition to any extra certification required in order to use animal assisted therapy in his treatment plan.
In other cases, individuals working with a licensed medical professional may be able to obtain a certification as an animal assisted therapy provider. Depending on their other qualifications and the laws of their state, they may be required to work under the direct supervision of a licensed or certified medical professional.
Where Animal Assisted Therapists Work
Animal assisted therapists work in a wide variety of settings. A growing number of convalescent homes and outpatient treatment centers make use of therapy animals as do a large number of school programs. Finally, due to the growing number of military veterans who are receiving treatment for PTSD, animal assisted therapy is being increasingly used by private veteran organizations and the Veterans Administration (VA) alike.
Pay and Employment Options
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not directly track most of these fields, related fields have shown steady and robust growth over the 21st century.
The veterinary field has shown excellent growth prospects and in fact enjoys highly competitive wages when compared to other fields that demand a similar level of education and certification. Furthermore, as many veterinary professionals can obtain a certification in animal massage or behavioral therapy in addition to their current certifications, gaining expertise in those fields can be an excellent method to improve the individual’s professional options.
These same factors work to ensure that those who have obtained a certification or degree in animal assisted therapy can drastically improve their professional and wage-earning prospects in their fields.
Due to the rising importance of this field and the growing number of individuals who will require this type of therapy, animal assisted therapy is likely to remain a secure and growing field well into the 21st century.
Ultimately, these fields represent a growing opportunity for individuals who are seeking to expand their professional options. Whether they are an already employed individual who is seeking to transition to another career or someone entering the professional job market for the first time, the field of animal and animal assisted therapy represent an excellent opportunity to enter fields that are both professionally and personally rewarding.
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