Animal Therapy

Connect, rebuild and flourish through interacting with animals

How can animal therapy nourish your soul?

Animal-assisted therapy, sometimes shortened to ‘animal therapy’, involves specialised healthcare practitioners supporting people’s emotional, physical and mental wellbeing by facilitating their interaction with animals. Animals used for therapy are often specifically trained for the role, with dogs, cats and horses being the most common types of animals involved. People participating in animal-assisted therapy might also interact with guinea pigs, rabbits, farm animals and parrots. Sometimes trained dolphins are used for therapeutic purposes, but the effectiveness of this is questioned, and there are concerns about how this may impact the animals’ welfare.

This healing modality is often integrated into a psychological treatment program, but may also be used in a range of different settings ranging from hospital visits to supervised horse riding for people with disabilities. Some animal therapy practitioners may provide individualised training to enable animals to support people with specific health concerns or disabilities.

You may be wondering, “What is animal therapy in comparison with pet therapy?” The answer is that pet therapy is more of an umbrella term which includes any therapeutic interactions between people and animals that can be kept as pets. Animal-assisted therapy, on the other hand, is a structured and goal-directed process facilitated by a trained practitioner. 

Another potential point of uncertainty is the difference between therapy animals and assistance animals. Although service animals in both types of roles are trained to support people in specific ways, only assistance animals are registered to be allowed full public access in areas where pets and other animals are normally not permitted. This is because they may offer potentially life-saving assistance, for example by being trained to respond to early warning signs that a person is about to have a seizure.

Benefits of animal therapy

According to the results of a meta-analysis, animal-assisted therapy may improve the emotional wellbeing of people with autism. Interacting with animals in a structured, therapeutic setting may help people manage symptoms of trauma and provide meaningful emotional support for survivors of sexual abuse. There is evidence to suggest animal-assisted therapy may improve motivation, increase the appreciation of pleasant activities, and general enhance quality of life in people suffering from schizophrenia.

A number of studies have been done into the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for the wellbeing of elderly people. A review of available research suggests interacting with animals may have a beneficial effect on “behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia”, but how long this effect may last has not been established. 

It is reported that pet therapy may have measurable physiological benefits such as improving oxygen saturation levels, as well as possibly reducing the symptoms of depression in chemotherapy patients. There is research to suggest interacting with therapy animals may increase focus in children with pervasive developmental disorders, as well as improve their awareness of their social environment. 

The results of one study suggest visits from a therapy dog may significantly reduce emotional distress and pain intensity in people suffering from chronic pain. Animal-assisted therapy has also been studied as a way of significantly improving the chances of successful rehabilitation for people undergoing treatment for substance abuse.

Animal therapy can assist in relieving symptoms related to:

  • Anxiety and stress
  • Communication
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Motivation
  • Movement
  • Self-esteem

What to expect from an animal therapy session

Because animal-assisted therapy may take so many different forms, what will happen during your session depends on the reason you are seeking treatment for yourself or a loved one.

Dogs are the most popular therapy animals, and a session often involves the animal therapy practitioner visiting a hospital, school or other location. The practitioner may invite children or adults to assist in grooming, feeding or training the animal. In other cases, the therapy animal may be based in a clinic and support the treatment of people who visit to receive psychological counselling.

Equine-assisted therapy will normally begin with your practitioner talking to you about your goals for the session, discussing what activities you are comfortable with, and explaining how to interact safely with horses. Your practitioner will introduce you to the therapy horses, which you will be invited to groom or lead around a paddock

An animal-therapy session for children might include speech therapy when talking about what guinea pigs eat, and occupational therapy when helping children buy food for the animals. The session may continue with social-development activities based on feeding the guinea pigs, and enable children to experience and understand sharing, or looking after vulnerable creatures.

Dogs, horses, and most other animals used for interactive animal therapy programs are expertly trained and undergo rigorous veterinary screening for possible infectious diseases. However, as with any exercise or wellness program, it is always important to consult your medical professional before commencing animal-assisted therapy. If you have an injury or other health issue, or any concerns at all, also speak to your animal therapy provider, who will be happy to address these and personalise the session to your individual requirements. 

References

Animal Assisted Therapy | Animal Assisted Intervention International

What are the types of animals and Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) programmes? | leadtheway.com.au

Parrots As Animal Assisted Therapy | forparrots.com

Dolphin-Assisted Therapy | oceancare.org

Animal Assisted Therapy | psychprofessionals.com.au

Animals assisting people | agriculture.vic.gov.au

Therapy Dogs & Animals | therapyanimals.org.au

Pet Therapy | Relationships Australia

Terms and Definitions | Animal Visits and Interventions Guideline, NSW Ministry of Health

What is the difference between therapy animals and assistance animals? | leadtheway.com.au

What is Animal Assisted Therapy? | aifc.com.au

Animal-Assisted Therapy | psychologytoday.com

Animal Assisted Therapy | westcasa.org.au

Animal-Assisted Therapy Ameliorates Anhedonia in Schizophrenia Patients | Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics

Animal-assisted therapy for dementia | International Psychogeriatrics

Pet therapy in elderly patients with mental illness | Psychogeriatrics

Pet Therapy Effects on Oncological Day Hospital Patients Undergoing Chemotherapy Treatment | Anticancer Research

Animal-Assisted Therapy for Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders | Western Journal of Nursing Research

Animal-Assisted Therapy at an Outpatient Pain Management Clinic | Pain Medicine

Animal-Assisted Therapy in the Treatment of Substance Dependence | Anthrozoös

Guided Animal Therapy Sessions | therapyanimals.org.au

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) Dog | mullumroad.com.au

What to expect from Equine Assisted Therapy | mullumroad.com.au

What can I expect in a session? | equineassistedtherapyaustralia.com.au

Animal-Assisted Therapy | wholefamilyhealth.com.au

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) at the WCH | Women’s and Children’s Health Network