Many people have heard of animal-assisted therapy, but few understand what it entails and how it can lead to substantial changes. Animal-assisted therapy is a therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals into the treatment plan, allowing for enhanced benefits of traditional therapy (Psychology Today). So why would it work as a treatment option?
Animal-assisted therapy functions due to the bond between humans and animals. When confronted with a stressful situation (such as talking about stressful events during treatment for depression), attention can be diverted from the stress to something pleasurable- the animal present in the therapy. The patient receives a lot of benefits, such as rapport with the animal, increased self-esteem and motivation, and stress reduction (Therapet).
One way that animal-assisted therapy improves treatment is by increasing compliance to treatments. In a children’s mental health hospital, children had fewer emotional outbursts on days when dog-assisted therapy was performed, and they had higher levels of self-control (NIH). Dogs also created a warmer atmosphere, which allowed therapy to work more effectively. Specifically, negative emotions could be addressed more easily, as the animals tended to improve overall mood and reduce stress.
One specific (but surprising) disorder that animal-assisted therapy can benefit is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). With ASD, social interactions with others tend to be lacking. By bringing in an animal to therapy sessions, those with ASD can learn important social skills in their interactions with the animal, and these can be applied to other social interactions (NIH1). The animals do not judge individuals by how they interact. They will happily interact with anyone. This helps teach children how to interact. For example, they can learn that throwing a ball results in a dog going to fetch it, and this action can be repeated over and over again. It gives children a sense that they can control their interactions, and this sense of self-efficacy is important to achieving more social interactions. Since kids are naturally inclined to interact with animals, this can lead to faster interactions than in a normal therapy setting. Therefore, animals can be used to train social competence in children with ASD.
Animal-assisted therapy can also be used to improve treatment for cancer patients. Cancer is associated with a host of painful treatments, a long recovery, and a feeling of hopelessness toward fighting the cancer. Animals can improve all of these aspects of treatment. When present during treatment sessions, animals can distract from painful procedures and provide something else to focus on (namely, getting positive attention). In addition, they can provide motivation to get better. The road to recovery is a long one, but it seems easier when you feel support. This support from the animals can improve spirits and lead to greater motivation to recover. The biggest benefit they might provide though is an improvement to the spirits of a cancer patient (City of Hope). Treatment outcomes can be affected by a patient’s mood. For example, if a patient believes he will get better, it is more likely that the treatment will work. For a patient who feels hopeless or lonely during treatment, animals can help to elevate their mood. This boost in mood can lead to better treatment outcomes. This is why animal-assisted therapy is encouraged for a host of problems, from cancer to mental health disorders.
In summary, animal-assisted therapy provides a host of benefits that improve treatment quality. It should be encouraged as a treatment option. Hopefully, as this therapy becomes more well-known, it will be used more widely and lead to greater treatment improvements.