Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy, or AAT, is becoming increasingly popular in all kinds of treatment settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, individual and group therapy, and hospice care. Therapy animals, such as dogs and horses, have been shown to reduce stress, which helps to ease symptoms of mental illness, pain from chronic illness, and fear related to long-term health. Animals used in therapeutic settings have also been shown to help people converse about their experience, which can be very helpful when working with a therapist in a group or individual setting.

Animal-Assisted Therapy for Skill Development and Rehabilitation

Animal-assisted therapy is a guided interaction between at least one client and a service animal. The animal’s handler will also be present; this person could be a trained therapist or medical professional who also works with animals, or the medical professional and animal handler could be different. AAT involves easily trainable and well-loved animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and dolphins, for the most part but other animals are often involved. These animals can include guinea pigs, fish, snakes, and even tarantulas.

Therapy involving pets or farm animals can greatly benefit physical and mental wellbeing, and this treatment is being applied in many settings for both adults and children. Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to help with:

  • Motor skills
  • Independent movement
  • Self-esteem
  • Verbal communication
  • Social skills
  • Participation in group activities
  • Exercise and physical health
  • Easing anxiety and depression
  • Learning empathy and nurturing
  • Developing self-efficacy

While there are many mental and physical health applications of pets in therapy settings, the populations studied most are children with behavioral difficulties, such as ADHD or oppositional personality disorder; older adults with chronic health issues including Alzheimer’s disease; and veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, AAT can be greatly beneficial as an aspect of addiction recovery too.

Easing Stress and Mental Illness

People who struggle with substance abuse or addiction often have another co-occurring mental health condition. When two disorders occur together in the same person, it is referred to as co-occurring disorders. People who struggle with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and ADHD, are more likely to develop a substance abuse issue, often as a way of self-medicating. For example, people who struggle with anxiety may become addicted to alcohol because the substance is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant and can induce a sense of calmness and relaxation. A person with bipolar disorder may take stimulants like cocaine during depressive episodes, to continue to function at a normal energy level. Despite the appearance of short-term benefits, addiction and substance abuse are more likely to make the mental illness worse on a long-term basis.

Working with therapy animals has been shown in many studies to ease stress related to mental illness. Simply petting an animal has been shown to lower blood pressure and slow heart rate, which can help people struggling with chronic illness as well as stress.

The companionship of having a therapy pet in the home has been shown to reduce loneliness. Working with animals to relieve stress while undergoing therapy in a rehabilitation program could even reduce the need for prescription psychiatric medications to improve mood during treatment.

Easing Physical Side Effects from Drug Abuse

If a person abuses substances for a long time, they are likely to suffer lasting side effects. These include mood disorders and changes to mental health, but it can also include physical changes. Cardiovascular damage and changes to motor skills may necessitate occupational and physical therapy, in addition to traditional therapy in a rehabilitation program.

Caring for animals – including walking dogs, feeding treats to cats, and grooming horses – have all been shown to improve motor skills while also easing stress. Although animal-assisted therapy is not a substitute for necessary medications and physical therapy, it can be added to these therapies to enhance their effects and improve overall quality of life. For example, dolphin-assisted therapy, which involves swimming with at least one trained dolphin and human monitors, may improve motor skills in children with developmental disabilities or physical disabilities.

One physiological benefit found in working with therapy animals is that lower blood pressure reduces cravings for, and ingestion of, alcohol among people who have chronic high blood pressure. This indicates that animals can be helpful in easing both the psychological stress of undergoing treatment for addiction, as well as physical symptoms that may have led to the addiction.

A study involving physical skills and self-efficacy while working with farm animals found that many patients experienced positive outcomes. People who struggled with mental health issues, who had overwhelmingly been sick for over three years, worked on a farm with supervision for 12 weeks. They were then surveyed when the treatment was over. Compared to the control group, they were found to cope better with stress for six months after treatment.

Social Support and Trust

Having a pet at home can reduce loneliness, but people without the financial resources to own pets, or whose living arrangements (such as inpatient rehabilitation programs or sober living homes) do not allow pets, cannot opt for this at home. Instead, therapy animals can be brought into a therapy session to facilitate social interactions. A study found that elderly adults who walked dogs on a regular basis had more conversations with people also out for a walk, and these conversations more often involved the present moment. People in wheelchairs with pets were more likely to engage in conversations with strangers in public, helping to forge neighborhood connections.

A grief counselor used a therapy dog during sessions with clients and found that the animal helped members of the group talk about their loss by relating stories of losing a pet or a human loved one, while being soothed by the presence of an animal. Another therapist who worked with teenagers in individual therapy brought in a therapy dog to emotionally soothe the adolescents, so they would be more able to talk with less stress in the presence of an adult.

The stress-relieving presence of animals can ease interactions between members of a support group, as well as between people in therapy and their therapists. By building trust, animal-assisted therapy can help people undergoing therapy in a rehabilitation program to become more willing to work on maintaining sobriety.

Improved Self-Esteem

Animals love unconditionally, but caring for an animal, even outside of the home, can show individuals that they are capable of caring for themselves and others. Training dogs and grooming horses are common forms of animal-assisted therapy that can build self-esteem.

One study directly involved promoting abstinence among those undergoing drug addiction treatment; the group worked with a dog, which helped to improve communication among members of the group, to ease social anxiety, and to develop relationships. This change in group dynamics improved many members’ self-esteem by showing them they were capable of having relationships while sober. Other studies involving training or feeding show participants that they are physically, as well as emotionally, capable of caring for others.

An Addition to Comprehensive Treatment

Animal-assisted therapy is a wonderful addition to larger therapy programs, and it can be beneficial for people in various stages of recovery. By aiding in stress relief, practical skills, and social enhancement, AAT can help people improve their relationships, improve self-esteem and self-reflection, and build trust with therapists and support group members. These improved relationships, along with improved mental and physical health, can help a person maintain long-term sobriety.