April 06, 2017

April 7 is World Health Day, and the WHO's theme for this year is 'Depression: Let's Talk'. The Good City focuses on various therapies to overcome depression, in a three-part series, starting with AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy).

Sometimes, the best cure for the blues is a wagging tail and an unquestioning friendly face.

Depression does not have a one-cure-fits-all solution. The cause differs from patient to patient, but what remains the same is a crippling sense of hopelessness and an inability to communicate. And this is where animals come in.

Therapy dogs Goldie, Pepe, Sunshine & Coco provide support to patients. Image Source

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is slowly gaining a paw-hold in India. Alongside counselling and medication, therapists use specially trained animals, or co-therapists, to put patients at ease. For adults suffering from depression, interacting and playing with animals increases levels of endorphin and oxytocin, the human body's 'feel good' hormones, which enhances self-esteem and reduces the sense of isolation.

"An animal is non-judgmental and provides that unconditional support which many patients need. AAT creates a safe environment where the patient feels comfortable and accepted for who they are," says Minal Kavishwar, counsellor and founder of Animal Angels Foundation, a Mumbai based NGO working with AAT. Animal Angels Foundation have a team of over 50 specially trained therapists and co-therapists working across Mumbai and Pune.

The animals are trained to calmly handle various stressful situations and to react in a safe, predictable and gentle manner. They are assigned patients only after a rigorous training schedule and a strict test. Dogs, especially Labradors, are the most common therapy animals, followed by cats, rabbits, horses, fish and birds.

Donkeys can help you kick out the blues. Image Source

The Donkey Sanctuary, an international animal welfare charity, is trying to popularise Donkey Assisted Therapy (DAT) in India. "Donkeys are docile and friendly, and connect easily with people who are suffering. Patients open up while they groom, feed and interact with them," says Dr. Ramesh Kumar, veterinary coordinator. The Donkey Sanctuary centre in Ahmedabad has specially trained donkeys and has been working with depressed adults in the city.

When the road looks rough ahead, pat the nearest fuzzy head. You've got a friend in there.