They have been part of our families for decades, but now animals are also helping to improve our health.
Seniors in one community continue to flock to llamas brought in as therapy animals.
“It’s pretty unusual when you say you have a therapy llama. I get some pretty weird reactions,” said therapy llama owner Niki Kuklenski.
Kuklenski’s pets are part of a growing trend of nontraditional animals used for therapy in a group, to provide emotional support to an owner, or to perform service for someone with a physical or psychiatric disability.
“It makes me feel pretty good knowing that we’re affecting these people in a really positive way,” said Drew Hartley, a therapy llama handler.
Professor Aubrey Fine studies how nine species from birds to pigs can unleash benefits for owners dealing with depression or other medical conditions.
“It changes your neurotransmitters. Even looking at fish, there’s been research that has shown that being around a calm school of fish and looking at the fish actually supports the decrease of anxiety,” he said.
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act says public places have to allow service dogs or miniature horses, it does not cover other species. Yet some owners say different federal laws suggest that with a doctor’s note, they may be allowed to take any emotional support animal with them in three key places: airplanes, workplace, and homes.
“It’s good for us not to judge but to kind of, to try to understand what these animals do and the types of independence and support that they can provide for people,” said Rachel Weisberg, staff attorney with Equip for Equality.
An airline, employer or landlord that must allow nontraditional animals can ask for proof of the emotional support, unlike for traditional service dogs, where all businesses can ask is what task the dog is trained to perform.
“What are we more concerned about: are we concerned about abuses in the system, or are we concerned with making sure that people with disabilities don’t have to carry medical information and their privacy and have to disclose everything about their medical situations each and every time they go into a restaurant or go into a store?” asked Weisberg.
Kuklenski has paperwork showing her furry friends are safe.
“When they just stand there and let people pet them or hug them or they reach down and kiss them on command, for a lot of people that’s very soothing,” she said.
Handlers of therapy animals must go through a rigorous evaluation and training process with national organizations for animal-assisted therapy like “Pet Partners.”
On the other hand, service dogs can be trained by anyone, including their owner, and the law does not require they register with any agency or wear a vest or any special identification.