It’s becoming increasingly “official”.  More and more, we human beings are using our furry, feathered, and finned fellow beings to help us heal.  It’s called animal-assisted therapy, or AAT, and the purpose of this post is to introduce you to it, a therapy adjunct since the 1990s.

We look into what it is, how we differentiate it from other programs in which animals help human beings, what issues it has tended to be used with, and what its observed benefits are.

Definitions and differentiations

Two standard definitions (Animaltherapy.net, n.d.) will get us off to a clear start:

Animal-assisted activities (AAA) consist of opportunities to motivate, educate, or provide therapeutic or recreational benefits to enhance quality of life. AAA are delivered in a variety of environments by specially trained professionals, paraprofessionals and/or volunteers in association with animals which meet specific criteria. AAA often takes the form of a pet owner/volunteer visiting a hospital or nursing home with their trained pet for short, meet-and-greet visits; this activity is sometimes called “visitations”. The same activity (say, a dog going into different rooms and being cuddled by the patients in each room) could be repeated over and over again with different people. There are not specific treatment goals for each visit. The visits are spontaneous and as long or short as necessary.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is a central part of the treatment process. It is delivered or directed by a professional health or human service provider who demonstrates skill and expertise regarding the clinical applications of human-animal interactions. People undergoing AAT have an individualised treatment plan, and their progress through it is documented and evaluated; as with most therapy, sessions have a fixed length (Animaltherapy.net, n.d.).

Pet therapy is claimed by some to be the old name for both AAA and AAT (Animaltherapy.net, n.d.) or alternatively, a current name for AAT alone (Giorgi, 2016). Others (Alo House Recovery Centers, n.d.) use the term to describe AAA: specifically, visitations from trained animals, with their owners, to facilities such as hospitals and treatment centres. To avoid confusion, we will not refer to any of the animal-assisted programs as “pet therapy”.

Service or assistance animals are different from therapy animals. Assistance animals are registered to provide a service to a person with a disability or illness, like a guide dog for the blind; they live with the person they serve. Assistant dogs are often granted public access to public buildings and transport, such as hospitals, shopping centres, and restaurants. Such animals, especially dogs, are in increasing demand, as some are trained in lifesaving skills: for example, detecting changes in blood sugar or early signs of seizures and then alerting their owners. Others help their owners cross the road safely, open doors, and pick up objects.

Assistance dogs can be registered in most Australian states because of their important functional and lifesaving roles. Conversely, therapy animals, such as dogs, receive training and registration or certification for reasons of insurance or legal aspects, but don’t perform lifesaving tasks. Thus, they aren’t generally allowed public access. They work with professionals and clients. Registration ensures a basic standard of training and reliability for the animals and their handlers (AIFC, 2018).

What animals are used?

People first tend to think of dogs, (canine-assisted therapy), cats, or horses (equine-assisted therapy) when asking which animals may be used. In fact, donkeys, llamas, rabbits, dolphins, birds, and wolves are also used – and even fish (Oxford Treatment Center, 2018)!

The issues AAT can help with

AAT has been observed to successfully treat the following conditions:

  1. Autism spectrum disorders
  2. Addiction
  3. Cancer
  4. Heat disease
  5. Dementia
  6. Developmental disorders
  7. Psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia
  8. Emotional and behavioural disorders
  9. Chronic pain (Alo Recovery Center, n.d.; CRC Health, 2015)

Additionally, a meta-analysis of 69 studies on AAT found that, along with increased levels of the cuddle hormone oxytocin, interaction with animals also had a positive effect on:

  1. Mood
  2. Interpersonal relations
  3. Blood pressure and stress
  4. Fear and anxiety
  5. Cardiovascular diseases (Alo Recovery Center, n.d.)

What benefits can we expect from AAT?

Interestingly, AAT can help with both physical and mental/emotional challenges. Of greatest concern to mental health helpers, it can result in:

  1. Improved mood and more positive emotions and outlook; reduced anxiety; less fear of the future
  2. Reduced feelings associated with low mood, such as loneliness, insecurity, sadness, social isolation, and anger
  3. Less regret, resentment, and guilt
  4. Improved willingness to be involved in a therapeutic program or group activity
  5. Better interaction, social, and communication skills
  6. Increased trust, empathy and teamwork
  7. Enhanced confidence
  8. Greater self-control
  9. Enhanced problem-solving skills
  10. Reduced need for medication
  11. Greater capacity to be present in the moment (Oxford Treatment Center, 2018; CRC Health, 2015)

There are many physical benefits as well, including those to do with improved fine motor skills and balance, reduced blood pressure and risk of heart attack or stroke, and increased capacity for focus and attention (CRC Health, 2015).

Summary

Animal-assisted therapy is on the rise as health providers observe the wide-ranging benefits which interaction with animals confers on people struggling with health issues.

References

  • Alo House Recovery Centers. (n.d.). Animal-assisted therapy:  What it is, who it’s for, and why it works. Alo House Recovery Centers. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • Animaltherapy.net.(n.d.). The truth about animal-assisted therapy. What is AAT/AAA? Animaltherapy.net. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • AIFC (Australian Institute of Family Counselling). (2018). What is animal assisted therapy used by some counsellors? AIFC. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • CRC Health. (2015). What is animal-assisted therapy? CRC Health. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from:Hyperlink.
  • Giorgi, A.Z. (2016). Pet therapy. Healthline. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
  • Oxford Treatment Center. (2018). What is animal-assisted therapy and how does it work? Oxford Treatment Center. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.