Animal-assisted therapy has been around for centuries, ever since the 19th century when nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale noticed that anxiety in children and adults living in psychiatric institutions decreased when they had small pets. She noted this in her book, “Notes on Nursing.” This, along with many of Nightingale’s other notes, helped pave the way for nursing to begin as the profession we know today.
One of these paving stones was the observation of the therapeutic benefits of animals. Keep reading to explore what animal-assisted therapy has become and how it might benefit you.
What is animal-assisted therapy?
Animal-assisted therapy, otherwise known as AAT, is a guided therapy treatment for various mental and physical health problems sufferers.
Mental health conditions that can benefit from AAT include depression, anxiety, dementia, autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD. Physical ailments that can benefit from AAT include epilepsy, postoperative recovery, strokes, and other motor-function impairments.
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 operates from principles of the human-animal bond, a concept of a mutually-beneficial relationship between humans and animals that benefits both parties’ physical and mental health. Animal-assisted therapy introduces this bonding experience in a guided, therapeutic setting.
Typically, patients who qualify for AAT — you have to be recommended for AAT by a doctor will be paired with a specific animal that most matches their personality and temperament — specific animals are trained in therapeutic techniques. Still, much of the benefits of AAT stem from the human-animal bond principle.
Among the animals that are used most commonly in Animal Assisted Therapy are dogs, cats, and horses. However, other animals, such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and other animals that meet the rigorous screening requirements, are also used.
Animal-assisted therapy is not a treatment per se for any 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 post-stroke.
Still, AAT may be recommended to give you a daily (or however often) a sense of purpose and interaction beyond the treatments. Similarly, dementia may be treated by a series of neurological treatments, but your doctor may also order animal-assisted therapy as a supplementary way to engage your brain positively.
How can it help you?
Figuring out if animal-assisted therapy is the right pathway forward for you will involve a conversation with your doctor. However, suppose you are suffering from anxiety, depression, or stress or are in recovery from a stroke or other procedures and are in post-op recovery. In that case, AAT might be of benefit to you.
If you’d like to find out whether animal-assisted therapy is for you, you could complete a course on the therapy to understand it more yourself. Alternatively, ask your GP or mental health professional for recommendations.
The human-animal bond also creates a sense of responsibility towards the animal for the length of the session — this can help reduce feelings of depression and give one a sense of purpose. Likewise, being around a happy, loving animal can also help reduce anxiety and depression, as (typically dogs or horses) offer a somewhat calming, reassuring presence. They don’t come with the chaos you might feel from a human interaction when in the throes of severe anxiety.
If you’re struggling to move around, AAT could help you remember various movement patterns or other motor functions — like petting a dog and moving your hands.
In general, results from AAT therapy for Alzheimer’s patients have been incredibly positive. Similarly, the use of AAT has been tremendously helpful for the mental health of sufferers of anxiety and depression.
What are the risks?
While the risks to participants in AAT are very low regarding physical safety and lack of positive results, if animals make you uncomfortable or feel unsafe, AAT might not be the best treatment for you. The same goes if you have allergies to dander or other allergens that come from pets.