Improved immune system, reduced blood pressure, reduced stress and anxiety levels and enhanced self-esteem; these may sound like the promises of the newest medication to hit the market. However, they don’t just come from a medication; these are the time-tested benefits of a drug-free treatment called Animal-Assisted Therapy.
AAT uses the connection people have with animals to promote mental engagement while calming nerves. While this type of therapy has been recognized for over 200 years (and some would argue that it’s been around for much longer), it’s recently gained more traction as researchers have delved deeper into understanding its benefits. Through AAT, many individuals are able to make more significant progress in their therapy sessions and make strides in recovering from mental illnesses.
What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?
AAT is a growing field that uses animals to help people recover from or cope with mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. It builds on the idea that humans naturally connect emotionally with animals and enjoy engaging with them.
Pets provide judgment-free interactions that for many people are less threatening than human connections. Interacting with animals can create a bond and release an automatic relaxation response. In most cases, AAT doesn’t replace more conventional therapies such as talk or exposure therapy. Instead, it’s used alongside these therapies to make them more effective.
AAT typically involves an animal’s handler, who is oftentimes the owner, bringing the therapy pet to each session. There are numerous organizations that train handlers and their pets and connect them with health providers. Animals involved in AAT are more than just friendly pets; they have undergone rigorous temperament testing, veterinary screenings and obedience training to ensure the safety of everyone involved, including the handler, mental health practitioners, the client and the animal itself.
In most cases, dogs are used in AAT for their unique ability to respond to nonverbal cues, pick up on emotions and sense when an individual needs comfort. However, therapists have also used cats, horses, birds and hamsters for AAT.
How AAT is put into practice varies depending on the setting. In some cases, it involves caring for animals, including bathing, grooming or feeding them. In others, animals are brought to facilities such as mental health clinics to interact with those who need comfort and a boost in their level of confidence.
The Benefits of AAT Animal Visits
The perks of having a pet for mental health support are widely observed, with studies showing that those who have dogs and cats have reduced rates of depression and anxiety. The simple act of petting an animal releases a cocktail of hormones—serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin—all of which play a part in improving the individual’s mood and helping them relax.
While owning a pet isn’t feasible for everyone, nearly anyone can enjoy the therapeutic benefits of connecting with an animal through AAT. This therapy offers a range of benefits, including:
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression
- A sense of calmness and comfort
- A positive distraction in a potentially stressful environment
- Increased mental stimulation and engagement
- Reduced feelings of loneliness
- The ability to overcome initial resistance that might accompany counseling
- Reduced blood pressure
- Slowed breathing in those who are nervous
- Enhanced self-esteem
One of the most significant benefits of AAT in a mental health clinic is that it supports open communication, which may not come naturally for those living with illnesses such as PTSD and social anxiety. Dogs and cats bring a nonjudgmental and unconditional sense of affection and acceptance, giving many people the confidence and courage they need to talk about difficult topics and experiences.
What Disorders Can Be Improved with AAT?
Because AAT accompanies, not replaces, traditional therapy, it’s flexible enough to use as a tool to achieve various goals. Studies show how first responders and veterans who’ve experienced traumatic or life-threatening situations benefit from this method. Dogs in particular have the ability to act as a companion and read emotions, which is helpful for those who are working to combat intrusive thoughts and impairments that often come with PTSD.
AAT is also beneficial for those with depression and anxiety. According to one study, interacting with animals causes chemical changes in the individual’s brain, releasing hormones that promote relaxation, improve their mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety. Long term, AAT can provide a sense of emotional support, lower their blood pressure, improve their self-confidence and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Finally, AAT is beneficial for those with mental illnesses and conditions that affect social skills, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, social communication disorder and social anxiety disorder. One of the more significant challenges these disorders bring is that they are isolating, cutting individuals off from social environments and normal relationships. By simply watching how the handler interacts with the service animal, those with impaired social skills can gather information on socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Animals also provide real-time feedback by responding to movements, tones of voice and handling. Individuals generally become more mindful of how the animal responds to verbal and nonverbal cues, and they adapt accordingly. This can help them develop self-restraint and self-control, an important skill to have in social settings.
Should You Get a Therapy Animal?
Therapy animals don’t just help in a clinical setting; they can positively impact individuals’ day-to-day lives at home. After having positive experiences with pets through AAT, some people decide to adopt their own therapy animal.
The perks of having a dog include unconditional love, companionship and regular boosts in stress-busting hormones. While a dog doesn’t have to be specially trained to provide these benefits—simply owning and interacting with a friendly dog is enough—some who have conditions such as depression or schizophrenia may look into getting their dog trained and certified.
It’s important to note that therapy pets or emotional support pets don’t have the same rights and protections as service animals under the American Disability Act. This means that they may not be allowed in certain settings such as restaurants, libraries or airplanes, and they may not be allowed in living situations in which the landlord has a no-pet policy.
Obviously, AAT isn’t for everyone. Those who have allergies or who simply dislike certain animals may not be good candidates for this particular intervention. People who have experienced an animal-related trauma such as a dog attack may or may not be open to AAT. However, for those who enjoy the company of cats or dogs, AAT may promote better communication and trust during therapy sessions.
Contact FHE Health for More Information on AAT
When used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, therapy dogs can effectively support the individual’s mental and even physical recovery. To learn more about how FHE Health works with therapy dogs to boost treatment outcomes, contact us today.