Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), also known as pet therapy, utilizes trained animals and handlers to achieve specific physical, social, cognitive, and emotional goals with patients.
The enjoyment of animals as companions dates back many centuries, perhaps even to prehistoric times. The first known therapeutic use of animals started in Gheel, Belgium in the ninth century. In this town, learning to care for farm animals has long been an important part of an assisted living program designed for people with disabilities.
Some of the earliest uses of animal-assisted healing in the United States were for psychiatric patients. The presence of the therapy animals produced a beneficial effect on both children and adults with mental health issues.
It is only in the last few decades that AAT has been more formally applied in a variety of therapeutic settings, including schools and prisons, as well as hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, and outpatient care programs.
Studies have shown that physical contact with a pet can lower high blood pressure, and improve survival rates for heart attack victims. There is also evidence that petting an animal can cause endorphins to be released.
Endorphins are chemicals in the body that suppress the pain response. These are benefits that can be enjoyed from pet ownership, as well as from visiting therapeutic animals.
Many skills can be learned or improved with the assistance of a therapy animal. Patient rehabilitation can be encouraged by such activities as walking or running with a dog, or throwing objects for the animal to retrieve.
Fine motor skills may be developed by petting, grooming, or feeding the animal. Patient communication is encouraged by the response of the animal to either verbal or physical commands.
Activities such as writing or talking about the therapy animals or past pets also develop cognitive skills and communication. Creative inclusion of an animal in the life or therapy of a patient can make a major difference in the patient’s comfort, progress, and recovery.
The way in which AAT is undertaken depends on the needs and abilities of the individual patient. Dogs are the most common visiting therapy animals, but cats, horses, birds, rabbits, and other domestic pets can be used as long as they are appropriately screened and trained.
For patients who are confined, small animals can be brought to the bed if the patient is willing and is not allergic to the animal. A therapeutic plan may include a simple interaction aimed at improving communication and small motor skills, or a demonstration with educational content to engage the patient cognitively.
If the patient is able to walk or move around, more options are available. Patients can walk small animals outside, or learn how to care for farm animals. Both of these activities develop confidence and motor abilities.
Horseback riding has recently gained great therapeutic popularity. It offers an opportunity to work on balance, trunk control, and other skills. Many patients who walk with difficulty, or not at all, get great emotional benefit from interacting with and controlling a large animal.
One advantage of having volunteers provide this service is that cost and insurance are not at issue.
AAT does not involve just any pet interacting with a patient. Standards for the training of the volunteers and their animals are crucial in order to promote a safe, positive experience for the patient. Trained volunteers will understand how to work with other medical professionals to set goals for the patient and keep records of progress.
Animals that have been appropriately trained are well socialized to people, other animals, and medical equipment. They are not distracted by the food and odors that may be present in the therapy environment and will not chew inappropriate objects or mark territory.
Animals participating in AAT should be covered by some form of liability insurance.
Research and general acceptance
The research evidence supporting the efficacy of AAT is slim, although the anecdotal support is vast. Although it may not be given much credence by medical personnel as a therapy with the potential to assist the progress of the patients, some institutions do at least allow it as something that will uplift the patients or distract them from their discomforts.