Animal-assisted therapy has been around for centuries, dating back to the 19th century when nursing was pioneered Florence Nightingale observed that anxiety in children and adults living in psychiatric institutions decreased when they had small pets. She noted this in her book, “Notes on breastfeeding.” This, along with many of Nightingale’s other notes, helped pave the way for the beginning of nursing as the profession we know today.
One of these cobblestones was observing the therapeutic benefits of animals. Read on to find out what animal-assisted therapy has become and how it can benefit you.
What is Animal Assisted Therapy?
Animal-assisted therapy, also known as AAT, is a targeted therapeutic treatment for sufferers of a variety of mental and physical problems.
Mental illnesses that may benefit from AAT include depression, anxiety, dementia, autism, schizophrenia and ADHD. Physical conditions that can benefit from AAT include epilepsy, post-surgery recovery, strokes and other impairments of motor function.
It should be noted that animal-assisted therapy is different from service animals, which work directly with patients with physical disabilities or other medical conditions.
How does animal-assisted therapy work?
Animal-assisted therapy is based on the principles of the human-animal relationship, a concept of a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and animals that benefits the physical and mental health of both parties. Animal-assisted therapy brings this bonding experience into a guided, therapeutic environment.
Typically, patients who are eligible for AAT – you must be referred for AAT by a doctor, will be paired with a specific animal that best suits their personality and temperament – specific animals are trained in therapy techniques. Yet much of AAT’s benefits stem from the principle of the human-animal bond.
Among the animals most commonly used in animal-assisted therapy are dogs, cats, and horses. However, other animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs and other animals that meet the strict screening requirementsare also used.
Animal-assisted therapy is not a treatment in itself for a mental or physical condition. Instead, it serves as a complementary treatment alongside your primary treatment. For example, you may receive physical therapy and other treatments after a stroke.
Still, AAT can be recommended to give you a daily (or however often) sense of purpose and interaction outside of treatment. Similarly, dementia can be treated through a series of neurological treatments, but your doctor may also prescribe animal-assisted therapy as an additional way to positively engage your brain.
How can it help you?
Finding out if animal-assisted therapy is the right way forward for you will involve talking with your doctor. However, suppose you suffer from anxiety, depression or stress, or are recovering from a stroke or other procedures and are in post-operative recovery. In such a case the AAT you may find it useful.
If you want to find out if animal-assisted therapy is for you, you can completed a course of therapy to find out more for yourself. Alternatively, ask your GP or mental health professional for referrals.
The human-animal bond also creates a sense of responsibility to the animal for the duration of the session – this can help reduce feelings of depression and give a sense of purpose. Likewise, being around a happy, loving animal can also help reduce anxiety and depression, as they (usually dogs or horses) offer a somewhat calming, soothing presence. They don’t come with the chaos you might feel from human interaction when you’re gripped by severe anxiety.
If you have difficulty moving, AAT can help you remember different movement patterns or other motor functions – such as petting a dog and moving your arms.
In general, the result of AAT therapy for Alzheimer patients have been incredibly positive. Similarly, the use of AAT was extremely useful for the mental health of those suffering from anxiety and depression.
What are the risks?
Although the risks to AAT participants are very low in terms of physical safety and lack of positive outcomes, if animals make you feel uncomfortable or insecure, AAT may not be the best treatment for you. The same is true if you have allergies to dander or other allergens that come from pets.