Animal-Assisted Therapy: More Than Just Pets

The therapeutic use of animals has a long history, but only in recent decades has it been formalized into various types of animal-assisted therapy (AAT). AAT involves interactions between patients and trained animals, guided by healthcare professionals, with specific therapeutic goals in mind. While dogs and horses are commonly involved, a variety of species can be therapy animals.

This article explores the science, benefits, and considerations of AAT, revealing why these therapeutic methods are about far more than just pets.

Understanding Animal-Assisted Therapy

AAT is a form of therapy that involves animals as a form of treatment. The goal of AAT is to improve a patient's social, emotional, or cognitive functioning and it has been used in a myriad of settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, mental health facilities, schools, and prisons.

While AAT often includes activities involving pet ownership, it is a structured therapeutic intervention conducted by health professionals. Activities are goal-directed and designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and cognitive function. It's about more than just the presence of an animal; it's about harnessing the human-animal bond in goal-oriented activities that promote healing and improve quality of life.

The Science Behind Animal-Assisted Therapy

Studies have shown that interaction with animals can cause the release of endorphins (oxytocin) in the humans. These are the "feel good" hormones that bring about a state of euphoria and a sense of tranquility. This reaction can have a significant impact on patients who are anxious or in pain, and can also promote social interaction and improved mood.

Research also indicates that AAT can lead to reduced blood pressure, decreased levels of stress and anxiety, improved attention and memory, and better overall mental health. Studies in settings such as nursing homes and hospitals have shown that AAT can lead to improvements in not only emotional well-being, but also physical health, including lower blood pressure and improved cardiovascular health.

A Spectrum of Applications

The applications of AAT are extensive and varied. In physical therapy, animals can be used to increase a patient’s motivation to participate in their treatment program. In the educational setting, reading programs that involve children reading to dogs have been shown to improve reading abilities and increase self-confidence. For those with psychiatric disorders, AAT can decrease feelings of isolation and alienation.

For people with autism, animals can serve as a calming and focusing influence, and can help improve social interaction and communication. For people undergoing cancer treatment, AAT can provide comfort and reduce stress. For veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), animals can provide a non-judgmental companion, helping them to manage anxiety and depression.

Considerations and Ethical Practices

Despite the many potential benefits of AAT, it is important to consider the needs and welfare of the therapy animals involved. The field of AAT is based on a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals, meaning the health and well-being of the animals are just as important as those of the patients. The animals must be well-treated, well-trained, and suitable for their role.

In addition, AAT may not be suitable for everyone. Some people may have allergies, phobias, or cultural beliefs that preclude the use of animals in therapy. It's crucial for health professionals to consider these factors and ensure that AAT is an appropriate and ethical choice for each individual patient.

The Power of the Human-Animal Bond

AAT reflects the power of the human-animal bond and its potential for healing. As research continues to illuminate the benefits of AAT, it is becoming an increasingly popular and accepted form of therapy in a variety of settings. However, as with any therapeutic intervention, it should be used thoughtfully and ethically, always considering the well-being of both the patient and the animal involved. With these considerations in mind, AAT is set to continue to play a unique and important role in healthcare.