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Llamas: An Unexpected Friend for Occupational Therapy

Posted by Brian Spence on Feb 7, 2020 8:00:00 AM

Occupational Therapy, Autism, Behavioral HealthWhen you think pet therapy, the first images that come to mind are probably dogs, cats, bunnies, birds, or horses. But what about llamas? Anyone can benefit from animal-assisted therapy, from children to adolescents to seniors, whether it's on a personal-level or used to improve the overall well-being of an entire community.

Over the years, the University of California says animal-assisted therapy has shown promise as an effective way to promote positive mental and physical health benefits, including:

  • Reduced levels of anxiety
  • Reduced levels of loneliness
  • Increased mental stimulation
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Lowered levels of pain

Llamas: Man's Unexpected Best Friend

Registered therapy llamas have shown promise in bettering the lives of those in a Texas-based retirement community, as reported in a 2019 New York Times article.

"The novelty factor is a big part of the appeal, along with the creatures' big-eyed, empathetic gaze," the New York Times wrote. "Among the animals that biologists refer to as charismatic megafauna — tigers, elephants, giant pandas and the like — llamas, which are not endangered, are among the few that people can safely hug."

Therapy llamas have also been used to assist children with autism, as seen in a 2006 American Journal of Occupational Therapy study. The study allowed children with autism between the ages of two to 12 to ride in wagons drawn by llamas, ride on their backs, guide the llamas through obstacle courses, and care for them, which encouraged them to interact more socially than studies had seen with traditional occupational therapy techniques.

"This data supports the hypothesis that children with autism would demonstrate significantly more social interactions and would make significantly more frequent use of language in sessions incorporating animals than in sessions exclusively using standard occupational therapy techniques," the study concluded.

"These findings are consistent with recent research suggesting that enhancing children's motivation to become active partners in the therapeutic process results in greater treatment gains. As opposed to being rewarded for engaging in a therapeutic activity by being presented with a reinforcer that is unrelated to the task, the children were able to engage in therapeutic activities where the reward was intrinsic to the activity itself."

While dogs, cats, birds, bunnies, and horses have shown themselves to be effective in animal-assisted therapy, llama's have also show promise in improving the lives of those regardless of age or circumstance. They provide new ways to provide children and seniors to have hands-on interactions with the therapy animal. Plus, llamas bear their own sort of charm: their quirky, silly, and adorable in their own special way that puts the patient at ease.

For more information on this and related topics, visit the Healthcare and Behavioral Health sections of our blog.

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