Animal Assisted Therapy: What it is, and how does it help?

 

Nothing but heart eyes galore anytime we see an owner with a dog on a street. We see those sad commercials with animals who are abandoned and in need, and often cry more over an animal who has died in a movie than an actual human. Animals make our hearts go boom, and also have the capability of bringing joy to our lives. However, did you know animals can also be very essential to improving stress and assist with those who have mental and learning disabilities? Learn everything you need to know about animal assisted therapy down below!

Cat - Animal Assisted Therapy

Animal assisted therapy is also commonly known as pet therapy.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?

Ever heard of having a therapeutic chicken or a therapeutic dolphin? It’s possible! Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is an option of therapy that involves the aid of animals as a form of treatment. It is used for the improvement of patients social, cognitive, physical, mental, emotional functioning and skills. Depending on the patient’s needs, various types of animals can be used in animal assisted therapy. These include marine animals, farm animals, exotic pets, and an all time favorite – domesticated pets such as cats and dogs.

Animals can’t speak human language, so they provide a very nonjudgmental and comforting zone for those who are struggling with a mental health or learning disability. Animal assisted therapy does much more than provide time spent with a given animal. It provides patients with responsibility roles, as well as giving a patient the experience of achieving a goal or task.

Animal assisted therapy can also take place in various locations such as the patient’s home, mental health facilities, prisons, and hospitals. Anyone can own an animal, but this type of therapy is normally facilitated by a licensed therapist or a person who has expertise in this field (a person who owns a therapy dog, etc.). Animal Assisted Therapy can also be facilitated in groups, or as individual treatment.

What are the Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy?

There are many benefits that stem from animal assisted therapy. They can target and improve areas such as mental health, physical health, physical therapy, and literacy support.

Mental Health 

  • Increases self-esteem, and ability to take care of one’s self
  • Encourages communication
  • Lessens feelings of anxiety, isolation, and grief
  • Reduces feelings of loneliness
  • Increases socialization and sense of community
  • Can help children overcome emotional and speech disorders
  • Reduces need for medication
  • Improves patient willingness to participate in individual or group treatment
  • Increases trust, teamwork, and empathy
  • Depression

Physical Health

  • Significantly reduces blood pressure and risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Reduces any type of physical pain
  • Improves cardiovascular health
  • Petting an animal creates an automatic relaxation response (this can help lower medications a patient needs to take to combat anxiety, or any other medication that is needed to help a person relax at ease)

Physical Therapy

  • Increases and improves motor skills
  • Provides a motivation to want to exercise and move for long periods of time
  • Increases joint movement due to interaction
  • Improves recovery time

Literacy Support: Commonly used for pet literacy assisted services

  • Increases self-confidence
  • Improves children’s literacy skills
  • Provides a non-judgmental and non-stressful environment
  • Helps children focus better
  • Decreases self-consciousness
  • Encourages the love of learning and reading
Dolphin - Animal Assisted Therapy

Shockingly, marine animals such as dolphins can be used for AAT.

What Kind of Animals are Used for Animal Assisted Therapy?

The entire animal kingdom.

That is a joke, my dear readers. One would be very surprised by what kind of animals can be used for animal assisted therapy. Most of the time, people associate dogs with pet therapy, but our lovable favorite canines aren’t the only option (sorry doggies). The types of animals that can be used for animal assisted therapy can include ducks, horses, fish, non-endangering reptiles, cows, cats, chickens, pigs, rabbits, rats, goats, sheep, you name it.

It doesn’t matter the animal of choice. If it relieves stress and can help decrease severe mental health symptoms, then animal assisted therapy is doing the job it is intended to do.

What Conditions does Animal Assisted Therapy treat?

Animal assisted therapy has a pretty solid list of the health conditions and mental disorders that it can help treat. The health conditions that can benefit from Animal Assisted Therapy are:

The keyword here is treat, not to be confused with cure. I think we could all agree that if animals could cure diseases such as cancer, the world would be one step closer to becoming a much more happier place.

Dog with tennis ball - animal assisted therapy

Animal assisted therapy is not only helpful in treating mental disorders, but also chronic health conditions.

Do you need to have a disorder to have access to Animal Assisted Therapy?

In a way, yes and no. The real question here is if someone wants a pet, versus if they have an actual problem, and are seeking out different treatment options. Animal assisted therapy is usually guided by a professional and is a treatment option for those who are hesitant about other modes of therapy. Evidently, it is obvious why someone would ask this question: You get to play and care for animals! Who wouldn’t want that?

However, stress is something that is very common amongst people. If it isn’t combatted, it can be very detrimental to your health. If stress is left unchecked, it can later be responsible for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. It is a vicious cycle because as we see throughout the article, animal assisted therapy helps reduce these risks, so it is pretty blatant that the best option for everyone is to be as less stressed as possible.

Animal Assisted Therapy: Pet or Facilitated Treatment?

If you or someone you know has a mental condition, and they are having issues seeking help because they are opposed to “traditional” therapy, this is perhaps one of the most appealing options out there. This option of treatment is extremely child-friendly and can be used with adults and the elderly.

As for those who don’t necessarily need therapy, but have feelings of loneliness, want something extra to be responsible for, and live a stress-free and happier life, perhaps a pet is the best option. Again, a pet doesn’t need to be a cat or dog. It can be anything that is legal to have in your home. There is also a lot to consider since pets do require a lot of work. Do you have enough time to care for a pet, and are financially stable enough to own a pet? If the answer is no to either of these questions, maybe look into volunteering at a local animal shelter, or opt to work at a pet store or veterinary office. You’ll get to be surrounded by animals, without dealing with them in your own home. These experiences are as equally awarding and therapeutic.

Now that you’ve been provided with a bit of knowledge on how animals brighten the lives of individuals, do you think animal assisted therapy is the right option for your or someone you know with a mental or chronic disorder? Do you now aspire to be a new pet owner?

Let us know in the comments below if you have received treatment through animal assisted therapy, or what your experiences have been owning animals and how they have played a part in the upkeep of your health!

References

Bubar, S. (2016). 6 types of animals used for therapy. 

Crchealth.com. (n.d.). What is animal assisted therapy? 

Pawsforpeople.org. (n.d.). Benefits of pet therapy. 

 

Jessica is a recent undergraduate student from a small private college in the state of New York. She aspires to further her education by applying for Ph.D programs catered toward Clinical Psychology with a focus for at-risk children, with hopes of someday becoming a child psychologist. Jessica enjoys educating family, friends, and colleagues on neuropsychology and psychological matters. She is always up for having open discussions with just about anyone – ranging from those who don’t know much about psychology to someone who is a professional in the field. Jessica also likes to learn anything she can along the way through feedback, criticisms, and of course: research.