A multisite study5 conducted at 15 schools in Brisbane, Australia explored the use of animal-assisted activities in the classroom of 64 children with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who ranged in age from five to 12. In the eight-week program, children were exposed to animals in the classroom and additionally received 16 sessions of animal interaction.

After the program, the children showed significant social improvements, including increased social skills and decreased social withdrawal behaviors, and more than half of the parents reported that the children were more interested in attending school while they were in the program.

A randomized controlled trial (RCT) reported last year in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found significant improvements associated with therapeutic horseback riding in 127 children with ASD.6 After the intervention, they showed improved measures of irritability, hyperactivity, social cognition and communication and number of words and new words spoken.

Adolescents in residential care with mental health problems and a history of trauma who participated in an AAT had better school adjustment, decreased hyperactive behavior and attention problems, better social and leadership skills and “a more positive attitude toward their teachers in comparison to controls,” the authors reported.7

Citing the need for creative approaches to meet the needs of college students in light of the “prevalence of anxiety and loneliness on college campuses and the simultaneous reduction in college counseling center resources,” a recent study from the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health found significant reductions in anxiety and loneliness in college students who had participated in an AAT outreach program.8

“As a discipline, we are still in the process of investigating why it is that animal assisted therapy helps reduce mental health symptoms such as anxiety and loneliness,” Stewart said, but “we know from medical literature that positive interaction with animals reduces physiological symptoms of anxiety and loneliness such as lowering heart rate and blood pressure and increasing the beneficial neurotransmitter oxytocin.”

The increased oxytocin observed during human-animal interaction is proposed as the key reason for its psychosocial and psychophysiological effects in a 2012 paper from Frontiers in Psychology.1