Animal-Assisted Therapy: What it is, who it’s for, and why it works.

Did you know that humans first began keeping pets as long as 12,000 years ago? In the early days of pet ownership, the animal executed practical tasks such as guarding and hunting; but as society changed, the desire for pets remained. In the 17th century, pet ownership became a source of companionship and pleasure, shifting the purpose of caring for an animal from practical necessity to emotional desire. In modern times, pets are treated as family members; in fact, about 62% of Americans have a pet.

While animals have become a source of comfort in our homes, they have also garnered attention in the world of therapy. Not only are pets a source of support for the individual owner, but animals are now assisting in healing due to their positive effect on mental health patients.

While animal therapy programs have become more widely acknowledged during the late 20th century, the first recognition of the animal/human connection dates back to the 1800s when Florence Nightingale acknowledged that pets lowered anxiety levels in her patients. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the certification for therapy animals began, paving the way for the two primary ways animals are now commonly integrated into therapy, pet therapy and animal-assisted therapy.

Pet therapy is a program in which pet owners visit facilities such as hospitals and treatment centers with their trained animal as a way to boost morale to keep the patients company. Animal-assisted therapy is implemented by social workers, therapists, counselors, and other professionals by introducing animal interaction into their methods of treatment. The most common conditions animal-assisted therapy is used to treat include autism spectrum disorders, addiction, cancer, heart disease, dementia, developmental disorders, psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, emotional and behavioral disorders, and chronic pain.

Studies show that exposure to animals increases oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, and provides a safe place for humans to open up in an accepting, non-threatening, and non-judgemental environment. In recent research done by Andrea Beetz involving 69 studies on animal therapy, she found that along with increased levels of oxytocin, interaction with animals also had a positive effect on mood, interpersonal relations, blood pressure and stress, fear and anxiety, and cardiovascular diseases. In addiction treatment, studies suggest that exposure to animals lowers the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, which improves pain management, builds trust and empathy, and reduces aggression.

When animal-therapy is used to treat addiction, it introduces the patient to their nurturing nature. In addition to learning how to show care, many of those suffering with addiction may also need to be shown or reminded what it means to be cared for. Interacting with animals allows them to step outside of their own needs and builds understanding for healthy, nurturing relationships.

When treating addiction, many mental health professionals will turn to equine-assisted psychotherapy, or animal-therapy using horses. Because of their size, horses create a presence that may initially be intimidating. This encourages victims of trauma to take back their space, properly assess threat levels, and learn to feel comfortable in non-threatening situations. Interactions with horses can also build relationship skills as they give immediate and honest feedback, a communication style that closely resembles that of humans. “It’s about mutuality and reciprocity, having relationships that are equal and fair,” says certified equine-assisted therapist, Dede Beasley.

Licensed counselor Heather Kuhl uses equine-assisted therapy with patients who are suffering from depression, marital and family conflict, self esteem-issues, addiction, and chronic pain. Through her work in this field she has found that clients develop “certain skills such as non-verbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking, problem-solving, leadership, teamwork, confidence, and trust.”

When used in partnership with other forms of treatment, animal-assisted therapy has proved to be an effective tool in healing by providing the client with comfort and confidentiality, especially in clients who have difficulty communicating with their therapist. While animal-assisted therapy is still considered a specialized treatment, it is garnering more respect in the mental health field and may soon develop into a regular practice.
* Alo Recovery House is proud to partner with Big Heart Ranch, a nonprofit rescue shelter for animal-assisted therapies. Read more about this incredible organization and find information on how to make a donation or become a volunteer here .

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