The benefits of animal-assisted therapy are a given for pet lovers. According to the American Pet Products Association, more than two in three U.S. households own a pet, and to many people, pets are more than just animals. The Harris Poll found that 91 percent of pet owners think of them as members of the family.

Humans and animals have a unique bond. A survey of dog owners by the American Animal Hospital Association found that forty percent of married females said they received more emotional support from their dog than their husband or children. That belief may not be far-fetched. Scientists have demonstrated that dogs can recognize human emotions.

The connection between humans and animals has clinical significance, as well. Sigmund Freud experienced that future when he brought his Chow Chow, Jofi, to psychotherapy sessions. Freud was more relaxed with Jofi nearby, and the founder of psychoanalysis noticed patients were more open when the dog was in the room.

Since that precursor to animal-assisted therapy, implementation and research for the treatment option has grown. It’s now regarded as an emerging, promising opportunity.

What is Animal-assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy incorporates animals into patients’ treatment plans. In this supplementary treatment option, animals can help patients recover from or better cope with health problems and mental health disorders.

The specifics can vary dramatically. The most health conditions that utilize animal-assisted therapy are heart disease, cancer, anxiety and developmental disorders. The most frequently used and researched animals used in therapy are dogs and horses, although virtually any type of animal can be present.

Patients at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles receive visits from therapy dogs.

Valeria, a 3-year-old girl who receives speech therapy, received visits with therapy dog Compass at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Florida.

Is It Effective?

Studies on the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy are in their infancy. However, early research has demonstrated positive benefits and expressed optimism for the field.

The most common mental health problems associated with animal-assisted therapy potential are post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia and autism spectrum disorder. A brief look at selected research for those issues is provided in the following sections, with an initial look at more general research for this type of therapy.

General Research

Two overarching reviews on animal-assisted therapies found encouraging results and called for more research.

In Applied Development Science, a systematic review of studies was published of research involving animal-assisted therapy for children and adolescents with or at risk for a mental health problem. Researchers concluded that findings were generally promising for equine therapies for autism, as well as canine therapies for childhood trauma. The second review was a meta-analysis of animal-assisted interventions that targeted pain, anxiety and distress in medical settings. Researchers in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found large, significant effects across the three medical outcomes.

Other studies have also had promising results for various applications of animal-based therapy. A study in Anthrozoös examined homesickness among first-year university students. An 8-week animal-assisted therapy program resulted in lower levels of homesickness and increased life satisfaction, compared to participants in the no-treatment condition. Older adults can also benefit. A study in the Journal of Community Health Nursing examined how pet therapy visits compared to volunteer-only visits. Pet therapy resulted in significant decrease of blood pressure and heart rate.

Research on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

A review of the literature for military veterans and canine assistance for PTSD was published in Nurse Education Today. Shortcomings in the research were present, but researchers concluded that the literature supported canine assistance for PTSD in veterans as a promising modality.

Similar findings were echoed in a report published in Military Medicine. Given the difficulties involved in researching this topic, the author supplemented studies with media reports of animal-assisted therapy for PTSD. Those media reports functioned as case reports, and concluded with three advantages for this type of therapy and PTSD: it can dramatically improve PTSD symptoms; potential benefit includes more than canines; and this type of therapy can have a role in preventing suicide in patients with PTSD.

Research on Dementia

Three separate research articles resulted in positive evaluations of animal-assisted therapy for individuals with dementia:

Research on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

In the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers found improvements in social functioning and executive functioning (cognitive control of behavior) in children with ASD who received equine therapy. A study in Anthrozoös found that canine therapy was associated with improvements in social skills training and affective systems compared to traditional training models for youth with ASD.

A multisite Australian classroom study echoed those findings. In The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, animal-assisted activities programs helped children in several ways, based on teacher- and parent-reported assessments. Children with ASD exhibited benefits in social approach behaviors, social skills and social withdrawal behaviors. More than half of parents reported that their children had an increased interest in attending school during the program.

The Future of Animal-assisted Therapy

A lot more research is needed to better understand how animal-assisted therapy can impact patients. There are plenty of difficulties for testing exactly what this type of therapy can do, and there are several environments and physical/mental health applications.

For many animal lovers, the research will continue to reveal what they already know — animal-assisted interventions can transform people’s lives. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time until academic literature more definitively proves animals’ clinical value.

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