What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

While many are aware of visitation using animals, which can soothe or enliven individuals, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a more involved process. The article below explores the distinct facets of this therapeutic approach. It will also provide insight into how it is coupled with other methods to benefit a variety of disorders, illnesses, and complaints.

Why It’s Effective

While it’s unsuitable for individuals with allergies or specific adverse reactions to animals, animal-assisted therapy, and any related interventional activities rely on a feature of human evolution. Homo sapiens’ success as a species is, according to some anthropologists, primarily due to the ability to form cooperative, extra-familial communities. While on the surface, this may seem a bit warm and fuzzy, more profound scrutiny reveals the complex neurological and chemical underpinnings of this assertion.

First, facial recognition and a much deeper neurological response via the sympathetic nervous system is hardwired into the area of the brain responsible for language and other essential areas of communication. Humans extend this recognition and humanization beyond the species to other animals with whom bond formation is possible. On the chemical level, dopamine and oxytocin are released during interactive associations that are reinforced with positive language or a happy outcome. Humans are rewarded for positive, prosocial, and helpful behavior by their brains.

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The Details and Benefits

As mentioned, AAT is different from visitation from “therapy pets.” It relies on patient interaction with one of a number of different species to enhance or reinforce other therapeutic frameworks. As defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association, AAT consists of a goal-directed intervention with specially trained animals as an integral part of a treatment regimen. It is also explicitly intended to promote or improve social, emotional, physical or psychological and cognitive functionality.

It’s a matter of empirical fact that interaction with non-human animals instills a sense of calm or comfort in patients and clients who experience an array of difficulties or disorders. AAT can also function to divert client attention away from the stressful process of behavioral or cognitive interventions, refocusing them on situations that are both pleasurable and provide demonstrable benefits to a broader group. Working with animals instills a sense of confidence and encourages patient clientele by showing that they can be helpful members of society. All the while, the trained specialist is enacting a treatment plan.

Specialist Application

As an article in Psychology Today notes, community health care providers, social workers, and psychotherapists or psychologists are among those who employ the tenets of AAT. Veterinary medicine also provides a niche for the specialty, which includes oversight of animal training and certification programs, administration of therapeutic activities, and community outreach.

While dogs are most often enlisted for their superior bonding ability with humans, a variety of social species are employed. Pigs, horses and other equines, and many other animals bring high-value benefits to a treatment regimen, whether their human patient-friends are battling depression, register on the autism spectrum, or experience chronic symptoms from a variety of non-communicable diseases and disorders.

AAT is gaining recognition within the therapy community. While work with animals has long been known to provide benefits, until the latter half of the 20th century, the findings were anecdotal and scattered across a broad population. Now that the data unambiguously supports the observations, many patients who will benefit from interaction and guided activities with trained therapy animals have greater access. Today, programs provide support for healthcare professionals seeking to incorporate the prosocial benefits of animal-assisted therapy into treatment plans for a wide variety of diseases, disorders, and injuries.