A particularly inspiring pet-assisted therapy program currently underway called "On a Wing and a Prayer" connects birds such as parrots, parakeets and cockatiels with people ranging from those with physical disabilities to criminals in the process of rehabilitation. Some people might think that birds aren't able to relate to humans in the traditional way that animals like dogs might, but this program shows they are able to develop significant emotional bonds. The beauty of these kinds of birds, and the freedom they represent, make them appealing as a point of focus for many people.
Less traditional four-legged animals such as ferrets, mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, and guinea pigs have also found callings as therapy animals in recent years. Rats have proven to be especially suitable because their extremely high intelligence makes them particularly intuitive to human emotions, as well as being much more affectionate creatures than other rodent species like mice. While rats are often given a bad name (indeed, they are frequently considered to be vermin), they actually form close relationships with us. At the Children's Therapy Center of Washington Hospital in Peters Township, Washington, Pennsylvania, rats provide therapy for children with autism. The center's facilitator, Ms. Pollock, admits to having had a number of reservations about the use of rats in this context. However, upon seeing the interactions between these animals and the children, her eyes were opened to the difference rat-assisted therapy could make to these children's lives. It's not just children that can be affected by these animals, though. Some university students have recently benefited from interactions with these creatures. At Park University in Parkville, Missouri, pet therapy sessions were organized with MO KAN Pet Partners in the campus library for students undertaking their finals in order to reduce stress levels. While dogs, cats and horses were all involved there was also, due to their highly sociable nature, a rat. One of the instructors, Julie Goodman, commented that "Park University, like other universities, has realized the power of the healing touch of animals."
Although it might seem strange to most people, lizards also make good therapy animals, perhaps because they can be so docile in nature. Our bonds with animals are not confined to those cute and cuddly creatures who most often live as our companions. Indeed, some people form strong bonds with these creatures which some of us find less attractive or who we perceive as lacking emotion. Whether furry or scaly, it's the nature of the relationship between human and non-human animal that counts, not its appearance. "I'd have to say my Leopard Gecko Mindy is very much therapy for me," wrote "Midori," leaving a message with the Herp Center Network, "she really is my therapy lizard, she wants to sit with me when I'm upset and tolerates me, which even my two dogs and cat won't. She'll just find a place on me and curl up and be like 'I'm here, I won't leave you.'"
Whether horse, dog, rat, or lizard, all sorts of animals affect our emotional lives. They live alongside us and with their distinct personalities and the sense of mutual engagement they affect us just as much as we affect them. It has long been known that when we interact with animals our levels of oxytocin (the so-called "happy hormone") rise significantly, helping to reduce stress and enhance emotional well-being. Just as we are capable of helping rescue animals to start second lives, the development and intensification of the human-animal bond enriches all kinds of human lives and, in some cases, allow us to move through - and come to terms with - trauma.