Behavioral Health

Animal-assisted Therapy: An Emerging Tool for Treatment

March 27, 2019

Young female patient hugging a golden retriever as part of animal assisted therapy.
In recent years, animals are emerging as a tool to help people cope with health problems, both physical and mental. This newly-popular trend is called animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and is defined by Psychology Today as a therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals into the treatment plan to enhance and complement the benefits of traditional therapy.

An Array of Support Animals

Different from service or emotional support animals, dogs, horses and other animals utilized in AAT are trained for the environments in which they work, often with a social worker, volunteer or mental health professional. Most published studies report that animals make terrific therapists.

Although dogs are the most common type of animal used in AAT, others include cats, rabbits, llamas, horses and even dolphins. Researchers found that dogs are able to form abstract mental representations of positive and negative emotional states in people by merging data from their different senses. Horses can detect nonverbal clues in humans, making them good at reflecting various emotional and behavioral states. Any animal used for AAT must be friendly and well-trained, and there are a multitude of certification programs available for people who want to become involved with AAT. 

Strategic Situations

AAT is used in a variety of areas, from aiding in the treatment of anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, addiction and PTSD to helping calm and reduce pain for people in long-term care facilities, those with dementia and individuals receiving cancer treatment. Proponents of AAT say people who develop a bond with an animal enjoy a better sense of self-worth, improved communication and enhanced socialization skills. Specific ways animals serve through AAT include:

  • Promote activity and self-care for institutionalized senior citizens.
  • Help individuals practice communication skills.
  • Serve as an icebreaker between therapists and their patients.
  • Offer motivation to improve someone’s life.
  • Help reduce violence in prison and improves relationships between inmates and guards.
  • Soothe children having medical/dental procedures.
  • Assist stroke victims in physical therapy.
  • Aid veterans with PTSD.
  • Help individuals express themselves to a therapist without the need for verbal communication.
  • Improve learning, memory and cognition in individuals who have experienced a traumatic brain injury.

Reliable Research

According to Anthrozoös, a journal that explores the interactions of people and animals, a meta-analysis of 49 studies reporting on AAT found positive outcomes and overall improved emotional well-being in individuals with autism, medical conditions or behavioral issues. Two of the earliest studies on AAT found that dog-owning heart attack patients lived longer than those without man’s best friend at their side. Another organization stated that young children who participate in equine-assisted therapy frequently see dramatic improvements.

UCLA Health notes that AAT improves mental health by lowering anxiety, providing comfort, reducing loneliness, increasing mental stimulation, acting as a catalyst in the therapy process or providing an escape. For physical health, the healthcare system found that AAT lowers blood pressure to improve cardiovascular health, may reduce the amount of medications some individuals need, slows breathing in those who are anxious, diminishes overall physical pain, releases hormones such as Phenylethylamine and precipitates increased relaxation during exercise.

Insurance Impediment

Unfortunately, this beneficial therapy is not covered by medical insurance in the United States, though it is being covered in England under universal health insurance. Therapists and other professionals who utilize AAT should invest in proper liability insurance to handle possible damage or injury caused by animals used in the process.

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Animal-assisted Therapy: An Emerging Tool for Treatment