Understanding Animal-Assisted Therapy

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animal therapy

Animal-assisted therapy, also known as animal therapy or pet therapy, has become popular in mainstream psychotherapy practice and for good reason. It works. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has proven to be clinically useful for several populations and issues.

Although it seems “new”, animals have unofficially been in the therapy room for a long time. It might surprise you to know that Sigmund Freud often brought his dog, Jofi, into counseling sessions. Boris Levenson, one of the pioneers of animal-assisted therapy, had a 4-legged “co-therapist” named Jingles and documented their experiences extensively.

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy is more than just petting an animal while talking in session. According to Pet Partners, the certifying organization for therapy animals, AAT is a “goal-directed intervention which is administered by a health/human service provider with appropriate training and expertise and within the scope of practice of the provider’s profession.”   Specially trained animals, usually dogs, cats or horses are an integral part of the treatment process. AAT does not replace traditional therapy. Rather, it is used to enhance the therapeutic experience.  

Animals used in AAT are specially trained to participate in the counseling process. Their calm presence and ability to bond and respond to clients’ emotional states provides clients to express themselves through safe, therapeutic physical interaction. It is that connection that leads to emotional healing.

AAT animals are trained for the specific counseling environments in which they may work. They are trained to remain calm amidst busy, noisy environments like hospitals or in stressful situations. The animals usually live with their therapist which creates a strong bond between them and helps with trust and communication during their work.

Dogs are the most common animal used in pet therapy. They have a well-documented ability to bond with and comfort humans. Research has found that dogs and humans actually experience mutual physiological changes in neurotransmitters during positive interactions. It’s no wonder that dogs are used in crisis and disaster situations.

Horses are also used frequently in animal-assisted therapy. Being herd animals, horses rely on their ability to read and respond to others in their herd as part of their survival. They can observe, respond to and learn from information they receive from sensory stimuli such as changes in environment, body language or tone of voice. This ability is also evident in their interactions with people. They are especially adept at observing nonverbal cues and responding to the feelings people show.

Other animals such as cats, birds and others have been used in animal-assisted therapy although with far less frequency. The type of animal used depends largely on the type of setting and therapeutic goals. The critical factor is that the animal and the therapist are both adequately trained.

Over the last several years, animal-assisted therapy has become increasingly popular. Because it is relatively new to mainstream therapy, there are some myths surrounding pet therapy and how it’s used.

What Animal-assisted Therapy is Not:

  • Animal-assisted therapy is not bringing a family pet into your counseling sessions and calling it pet therapy.
  • Animal-assisted therapy is not training your dog (or other pet) basic commands and calling them a therapy animal.
  • Animal-assisted therapy is not a novel or unproven technique.
  • Animal-assisted therapy is not strictly beneficial for emotional health.
  • Animal-assisted therapy using a trained therapy animal is not the same as having an emotional support animal or a service dog.

What are the Benefits of Animal-assisted Therapy?

AAT offers numerous benefits to clients and compliments traditional therapy. These benefits can be both medical and mental health focused.

Some of the many mental health benefits include:

  • Relaxation – the act of petting an animal has been shown to trigger an automatic relaxation response via the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin.
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Comfort
  • Reduces loneliness
  • Increases mental stimulation and cognition
  • Improves mood
  • Can facilitate the therapy process
  • Decreases the initial resistance that can present when beginning therapy

Some of the medical benefits include:

  • Lowers blood pressure and improves cardiovascular health
  • Reduces anxiety
  • Decreases perceived pain levels
  • Motivation and enjoyment of physical therapy sessions
  • Has shown many benefits for children with autism including improved social interaction and increased use of language
  • Helps to combat symptoms associated with long hospitalizations

Who Can Benefit from Animal-Assisted Therapy?

There are many settings and types of clients who may benefit from animal-assisted therapy. Almost any client is a potential participant in AAT. As the practice becomes more popular, researchers are examining more closely the possible benefits for clients across the therapeutic spectrum.

Children

Children, particularly young children, communicate primarily through play. Animal-assisted therapy allows even very young children the opportunity to build bonds, experience comfort, learn social skills and communication. AAT has been used to help children with issues such as autism, trauma, chronic illness and cancer. It also benefits children with or at risk for mental health issues such as disruptive behaviors, ADHD, social functioning and anxiety.

Children with autism seem to be particularly receptive to animal-assisted therapy, especially equine-assisted therapy. Numerous studies have shown that AAT supports improvements in social interactions and use of social skills, enhanced emotional expression and a reduction in anxiety related to social interactions.

Teens

Working with teens and building rapport can be challenging. Animal-assisted therapy can bridge that gap by allowing the teen to engage with and bond with the animal in a non-judgmental, natural way. AAT has been used in several adolescent treatment settings with a variety of presenting issues. Numerous studies examining AAT with teens has shown the intervention to be effective in improving social competence, behavior, self-esteem, anxiety and depression.

Adults

Adult clients can benefit from animal-assisted therapy too. AAT has been used with adults in a variety of settings including inpatient, outpatient, in hospitals and in correctional facilities. AAT with adults has shown benefits of improved mood, decreased anxiety and even a reduction in pain.. The non-judgmental nature of animals seems to be particularly appealing.

Seniors

Elderly clients are at significant risk for both physical and mental health issues. AAT has been found to provide a number of benefits for elderly persons including combating loneliness, improved physical health, pain reduction and improved mood.

Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to be particularly helpful for elderly clients with dementia in the reduction of agitated behaviors and social interactions. It has also shown to improve memory recall, help sequence temporal events and reduce sundowning.

PTSD and Trauma

People who have experienced trauma, including military veterans, may benefit from animal-assisted therapy. Research suggests that AAT, particularly with dogs or horses, has shown to significantly improve symptoms of PTSD including reductions in depression, PTSD symptoms, and anxiety levels.

Dogs seems to be particularly suited to sexual trauma work with their ability to comfort and externalize the client’s attention. In one of the largest studies of AAT and children with a trauma history, children who worked with therapy dogs showed significant decreases in trauma symptoms including anxiety, depression, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociation, and sexual concerns. The most positive results were found when the dog was incorporated into the therapy process by telling stories from the dog’s perspective, rather than simply being present.

Hospitals and Long-Term Care Facilities

Patients who are in long-term hospital or care placements are at risk for the development of what is known in the medical community as “hospitalization syndrome.” Over time, the patient becomes increasingly lethargic, anhedonic and begins to lose interest in their surroundings. The elderly are at particular risk. Patients who participate in therapy with an AAT-certified animal have shown significant improvements in mood and in some cases, medical status.

Animals have long been a presence in children’s hospitals and programs. More recently, hospital-based AAT programs are becoming more common. Not only are the animals providing comfort, researchers are finding that children hospitalized with cancer or other illnesses benefit from pet therapy. Some of the noted benefits include pain reduction, improvement in mood and reduction in stress. Their caregivers also experienced benefits including a reduction in anxiety.

Animal-assisted therapy is beneficial for many clients who seek mental health care. The primary contraindications are a significant fear or dislike of animals or an allergy. As pet therapy continues to grow in popularity, research will continue to expand and explore its use across populations. In the meantime, indications are that AAT is a viable, useful and effective intervention to add to therapy.

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Dawn Ferrara is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with additional certification in the telemental health. She is passionate about helping people find solutions that work and believes that every person has the power to successful. Her practice is in South Louisiana.
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