The advantages of pet ownership are increasingly touted in media reports highlighting research linking it with a range of positive outcomes, from decreased stress and heart disease risk to improved sleep and social functioning.1 The benefits are not limited to casual interaction with one’s own pets, however: The growing field of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is associated with numerous health benefits for people of all ages in a variety of settings.
AAT typically involves “a scheduled encounter with a certified therapy team consisting of an animal and its handler for the purpose of supporting or improving patients’ social, emotional, physical, or cognitive functioning,” wrote the author of a 2014 paper from the Annals of Long-term Care.2 In terms of specific mental health benefits, studies in the last few years have shown that AAT may improve outcomes and reduce various symptoms for people with depression, anxiety, dementia, loneliness and more. It has been found to be effective across multiple settings and demographics, including autistic children in the classroom, adolescents in a residential care home and older adults in nursing homes.
The non-profit organization Pet Partners (petpartners.org) is the largest such group in the United States to oversee the evaluation, training and registration of therapy animal teams. Dogs are the most commonly used animals in such teams, accounting for 94% of those registered the organization, which also evaluates potential AAT animals from eight additional species: cats, horses, rabbits, pigs, birds, llamas and alpacas, guinea pigs and rats.
“In my clinical practice as a professional counselor, I have worked with a dog, a rabbit and horses and I’ve noticed benefits–especially anxiety reduction and relationship enhancement–when working with all three species,” Leslie Stewart, PhD, LPC, an assistant professor of counseling at Idaho State University, told Psychiatry Advisor. “Since animal-assisted therapy is a relational approach, I think the provider’s skill along with the animal’s temperament and individual personality is probably more important than the animal species.”
The positive effects of AAT appear to span all ages. The American Humane Association’s Therapy Animals Supporting Kids (TASK)™ program recommends the use of animals to help put children at ease during forensic interviews regarding sexual abuse.3 Based on that recommendation, researchers at the University of Colorado and the State University of New Jersey investigated the use of a therapy dog in such interviews with 42 children.4
They measured physiological measures of stress and found that the 19 children who had a therapy dog present during the process had a lower heart rate at the beginning of the interview, compared with the 23 children in the no-dog control group.
“The results suggest that the presence of the canine in the forensic interview may have acted as a buffer or safeguard for the children when disclosing details of sexual abuse,” the authors wrote in a paper last year in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, and that “having a certified handler-canine team available during the forensic interview on physiological measures of stress has real-world value for children, child welfare personnel, and clinical therapists.”