Animal-assisted therapy: how it helps

If you’ve ever felt comforted by your pet, you’ve had a glimpse of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy.

Animal-assisted therapy involves using an animal in goal-directed therapy sessions. Animal-assisted therapy has psychological and physiological benefits.

The American Association for the Protection of Animals defines animal-assisted therapy on their website like:

“A targeted intervention in which an animal is integrated as an integral part of the clinical treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is delivered or led by a health or social service professional (professional) who demonstrates skills and expertise regarding the clinical applications of human-animal interactions.

1. There is no single or standardized approach to animal-assisted therapy

Therapy animals support the therapeutic process rather than directing it. A therapy animal could be involved in a wide range of therapies. Examples include equine therapy for anxious children and canine therapy for childhood trauma.

The therapy animal may simply be present in the session to provide comfort. Or it may take a more active role, such as when a therapy client interacts with the animal by grooming it or walking with it.

2. They are not service animals

Therapy animals and service animals have different roles.

Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks for people with difficult-to-manage conditions. Service dogs can be a huge gift in helping these people lead functional lives, says Teresa Lodatoa certified professional coactive coach based in Alamo, California.

“A therapy animal, on the other hand, is used for specific tasks like education (or) stress relief,” she explains.

“A way to identify which is which (is it) assistance dogs work only for their humans companion. Therapy animals are handled by a human but provide therapy or education to a third person or party.

Therapist Dr. Monika Kreinberg of Mind Wellness Center adds that “service dogs can provide many different types of services (such as guiding) the blind or alerting to diabetes and seizures.”

But she specifies: “An animal used as part of therapy, its role is to help with the processing of emotions. Therapy animals are often used as additional assistance to connect with clients and help them work through the steps of therapy.

3. Animals used for therapeutic purposes are not limited to dogs and horses

Since pet therapy animals do not require task-specific training like service animals do, there are more types of animals that can participate.

Nurse Practitioner Becky Morrison says: “My English Mastiff is a visiting therapy dog ​​and a personal therapy dog. In Alberta, Canada, we have the PALS program… Pet Access League Society — dogs and cats are certified as visiting therapy animals.

Dogs, cats and horses but that’s not all. Other animal therapists can use for animal-assisted therapy:

  • birds
  • rabbits
  • ferrets
  • Guinea pigs

4. They help people for various causes and contexts

Animal-assisted therapy does not always take place in a clinician’s office.

“We go to various health care settings, from hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, shelters and even the airport,” Morrison says of her visiting therapy dog.

Sessions can be individual or group and can take place in many different locations, such as:

  • libraries
  • schools
  • outside
  • rehabilitation centers
  • correctional facilities

“Using animals in therapy can be very effective,” says Kreinberg.

A therapy animal is a safe topic of conversation to start the relationship between therapist and client. In addition to being a source of comfort and pleasant distraction, the animal creates a topic of discussion to generate engagement.

In addition to increasing social interactions, the benefits of animal-assisted therapy include human-animal interaction which can reduce emotional arousal and anger, according to Research 2019.

There are also medical benefits.

A 2018 study shows that seeing and touching animals can trigger positive physiological changes, including higher levels of:

A reduced baseline cortisol level is another advantage.

Research from 2016 has also linked animal-assisted therapy to improved blood flow in people with heart failure. It can even reduce blood pressure in some people.

This is useful, according to Kreinberg. She said she often took her therapy dog ​​with her to child abuse cases in family court. Kreinberg says his dog has helped connect with children who have lost trust in adults because of abuse.

Research from 2016 identifies the therapeutic bond as one of the most important factors in therapeutic success. In other words, it’s important to be able to trust your therapist. Animals can help foster this trust.

A summary 2019 covering seven studies, examined dog-assisted psychotherapy with young people aged 10 to 19 with mental health problems. It found that dog-assisted psychotherapy had a positive impact on behaviors and conditions such as:

  • internalizing disorders
  • anxiety
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • anger
  • externalizing disorders (challenges of external impulses such as conduct disorders)

The benefits of animal-assisted therapy for children’s mental health go even further.

A 2015 study linked therapeutic time with animals to reduced pain levels after surgery. Children hospitalized for cancer treatment also experienced reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol thanks to time spent in animal-assisted therapy.

Animal-assisted therapy can provide both mental health and medical benefits.

Unlike service dogs, animal-assisted therapy animals do not receive person-specific training. However, they need basic training and socialization to remain calm and manageable.

Since there are no specific tasks to learn, more types of animals can participate in animal-assisted therapy.

Your insurance may not cover animal-assisted therapy, but it’s worth considering. Session prices can range from $100 to over $300, depending on the session content and the leader. You may be able to get a lower rate if you’re willing to work with a clinical intern rather than a licensed therapist.

If you’re interested in trying animal-assisted therapy, having a conversation with a doctor or mental health specialist is a good place to start.


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