Animal-assisted therapy

4 min read

Animal-assisted therapy, also known as pet therapy or animal-assisted intervention (AAI), is a therapeutic approach that involves integrating animals into treatment with the aim of enhancing the physical, social, emotional, or cognitive well-being of patients. The most commonly used animals in AAI are dogs, cats, horses, as well as smaller mammals like rabbits or guinea pigs.

Intervention areas in child and adult psychology

In child psychology, animal-assisted therapy is often utilized to facilitate communication, increase motivation, and reduce anxiety. It's particularly useful in treating disorders such as autism spectrum disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and emotional disturbances. For instance, a dog's presence can provide non-judgmental support that helps children develop social and emotional skills.

For adults, animal-assisted therapy is employed in various scenarios, especially for patients dealing with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or dementia. In cases of dementia like Alzheimer's, animal interaction can elicit positive emotional responses and enhance engagement in the present moment, contributing to an improved quality of life.

Research findings

Scientific research on animal-assisted therapy has yielded promising yet varied results due to methodological variability (Rehn and al, 2022). Studies have shown reductions in patients' blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels (stress hormone), and increased levels of oxytocin, known as the well-being hormone  (Plett et al, 2023).

Research has also demonstrated that AAI can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression (Batubara and al, 2021). Other studies suggest that animal interventions may be effective in improving psychiatric symptoms, especially in individuals with severe mental disorders (Yakimicki and al, 2018).

Patient outcomes
Observed benefits for patients include improved mood, interpersonal communication, autonomy, and an overall sense of well-being. In geriatrics, animal presence has been associated with a reduction in aggressive behaviors. In children, animal-assisted therapy often encourages therapy engagement and the development of social skills.

Ongoing studies
Currently, numerous studies continue to explore the effects of animal-assisted therapy across various domains. For instance, research focuses on its use among veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or individuals living with HIV. Future studies are expected to encompass larger samples and more rigorous experimental designs to determine AAI's specific efficacy for different psychological and medical conditions.

Animal-assisted therapy is an innovative therapeutic approach that has demonstrated several beneficial effects. However, further research is necessary to fully understand its impact and to optimally integrate animals into psychological treatment programs. Collaboration among psychologists, psychiatrists, veterinarians, and other healthcare professionals is essential for developing and implementing effective and animal-respectful animal-assisted therapy programs.