Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a type of therapeutic intervention that uses animals such as dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, or other animals to improve the physical, mental, social, or emotional wellbeing of patients.
Thanks to its versatility and the large number of benefits it offers, animal-assisted therapy can be used in many settings, including, but not limited, to hospitals, mental health facilities, nursing homes, boarding schools, and prisons.
Animal-assisted therapy means more than simply spending time with an animal. As with regular therapeutic procedures, this therapy involves well-developed strategies, therapeutic goals, and measurable outcomes. There are different ways patients can achieve their goals and a qualified therapist will determine the best approach for each individual. Depending on the patients’ needs, a therapeutic experience can include caring for an animal, petting or brushing it, as well as trying to accomplish tasks with them.
Who Can Benefit from Animal Assisted Therapy?
Animal-assisted therapy is used in individual or group therapy sessions, and can improve the emotional wellbeing of those who suffer from illnesses such as anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia. The inclusion of animals in therapeutic activities for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has proven to decrease stress, behavioural problems, and the severity of certain symptoms of the condition. Moreover, patients are known to experience a boost in their ability to communicate, through this increase in social interaction.
Therapy dog-assisted interventions have the greatest potential in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Interacting with therapy dogs has positive effects on wellbeing, health, and the quality of life of patients who suffer from severe cognitive disorders. Therapy dogs can also lower stress and boost a patient’s mood.
Animal-assisted therapy is known to produce positive results in long-term care facilities. For elderly residents of care homes, spending time around therapy animals has proven to reduce feelings of loneliness. The inclusion of AAT in psychosocial rehabilitation programs can produce positive results in the treatment of schizophrenia. An improvement in negative symptomatology, increased pro-social behaviour and a decrease in stress and anxiety, being the possible outcomes.
Animal-assisted therapy can also be beneficial in the counselling process, especially for young patients. The presence of an animal helps to facilitate the bond between therapist and patient - helping to relieve any tension the patient may be feeling. Moreover, talking to a dog or a cat can be easier for patients than talking to a therapist, especially when discussing the more difficult issues.
Another advantage of using therapy dogs is that they can work in public environments, making the therapy process less stressful for patients. Thanks to their natural inclination to explore and socialize, therapy dogs can offer children social and emotional support, giving them the feeling of being understood.
What Are the Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy?
- Lowers stress and anxiety levels
- Reduces loneliness
- Increases mental stimulation
- Provides comfort
- Helps reduce resistance to therapy
- Improves cardiovascular health
- Has a relaxing effect
- Improves social skills
- Stimulates problem-solving skills
- Increases self-esteem and stimulates grooming habits
- Can be used for individual or group activities
What to Expect from Animal Assisted Therapy
A qualified therapist should develop a strategy that involves doing different tasks to achieve specific therapeutic goals. Depending on the patient’s needs and the therapy animal involved, the patient might keep a dog, cat, or another small animal at home for emotional support, or they might go to a specialised facility to care for or interact with larger animals, such as horses.
Patients who receive their treatment in hospitals, nursing homes, or rehabilitation centres will often interact with therapy dogs. These dogs are naturally calm and affectionate, but they have also been trained to socialise with new people, to cope with stressful situations, and to be comfortable around healthcare equipment. Therapy dogs can disregard toys or food on cue, initiate contact with strangers without jumping on them, and are comfortable when being touched or held awkwardly. They are also able to follow simple commands, and they may respond to commands given by someone other than their handler.
If you want to find out more about animal-assisted therapy and the benefits it can offer, consider taking our Animal Assisted Therapy Diploma Course.