Animals and Your Health: Animal-Assisted Therapy

Petting a cat or a bunny can be so soothing. A high energy puppy makes us burst into laughs. Animals give us joy in many ways. They help us to:

In fact, animals are now being used for therapy. This type of treatment is called animal assisted therapy (AAT). AAT involves bringing animals to a person or group to help them feel and function better. Different types of animals are used. Examples are dogs, horses, dolphins, hamsters, birds, or even fish.

AAT may be used with people who have mental health problems. It can help those who have been through trauma. It is also used in nursing homes, hospitals, and schools.

Mental Health Conditions and Trauma

Many things can cause trauma. Examples are accidents, fires, tornados, earthquakes and bombings. Being sick or in the hospital may also be traumatic for some. AAT helps children and families deal with pain and stress from these events. Visits from animals give people a break from their stress. Playing with animals brings people comfort.

Therapy animals are very helpful to people with mental health problems. They can help ease stress, anger, and depression, and increase trust.

The Elderly

AAT is also helpful with people in long term care homes. Therapy animals help ease loneliness and depression in older adults. Residents are more apt to talk to each other when petting an animal. AAT may also help elderly adults with schizophrenia.

Children

Animals are great for children's emotional and social skills. Animals can even help children with physical therapy. Imagine a child learning to use a new prosthetic arm. The child can practice his grasping skills by using a brush to groom a dog. Or maybe the child has a new prosthetic leg. The child might improve her balance while throwing a ball to a dog.

Therapy animals also help children learn confidence and self-respect. Children can focus on their abilities instead of their limits.

AAT has also been used with autistic and intellectually disabled children. Dogs and horses help the children try new things. The children start to interact more with the world around them. This helps them learn and develop new skills.

How Animal-Assisted Therapy May Work

Animals may help improve well-being because they:

  • Remind people of home
  • Provide a more natural environment in the hospital or care home
  • Accept others and do not judge
  • Encourage touch and affection
  • Encourage exercise, play, and laughter
  • Provide a link with reality

AAT enhances but does not replace therapy. It also has limits and is not always the best choice. It depends on the person, the situation, and the animal. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about using AAT.

RESOURCES:

The American Veterinary Medical Association
http://www.avma.org

Shriners Hospitals for Children
http://www.shrinershq.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Mental Health Canada
http://www.mentalhealthcanada.com

Therapeutic Paws of Canada
http://www.tpoc.ca

REFERENCES:

Animal-assisted psychotherapy. GoodTherapy website. Avaiable at: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/animal-assisted-therapy. Accessed June 14, 2021.

8 things you didn't know about animal-assisted therapy. American Counseling Association website. Available at: https://www.counseling.org/about-us/8-things-aat. Accessed June 14, 2021

Monfort Montolio M, Sancho-Pelluz J. Animal-assisted therapy in the residential treatment of dual pathology. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;17(1):120.

What is animal-assisted therapy? Therapet website. Available at: https://therapet.org/about/what-is-animal-assisted-therapy. Accessed June 14, 2021.

Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board  Last Updated: 6/14/2021