Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a kind of therapy that involves using a trained animal in treating certain health conditions. A therapist guides the interaction between the animal and the patient. Some people use AAT as a complementary or alternative therapy, but it shouldn’t replace medical treatments. Before choosing AAT as part of your treatment program, it’s better to understand how it can support your recovery and the right fit for your condition.
Animal-assisted therapy relies on the human-animal bond to help people cope or alleviate some symptoms of different conditions. This concept is rooted in people’s desire to interact with and relate to animals. For a lot of people, interacting with friendly animals create a bond that can help them in several ways, including:
- Staying calm
- Decreasing the feeling of boredom
- Boosting mood and enhancing well-being
- Reducing loneliness through companionship
- Providing other opportunities for social interactions
- Adding physical activity and increasing movement through play and walks
How does animal-assisted therapy work?
Some of the most common types of animals used include:
- Guinea pigs
The therapy session often involves at least three people: the AAT therapist, the animal handler, and the patient. The handler, who is often also the animal’s owner, is responsible for the animal and ensures the interaction goes smoothly. They work under the therapist’s directions and manage the animal’s behavior.
To ensure that the animal and its handler are fit to assist the healthcare providers in the treatments, they both need to go through various certifications. The handler needs to pass an instructional course on interacting with people and about the different types of therapies they will be part of. On the other hand, animals need to be checked for their general health and immunization records to guarantee they are free of any diseases. Also, they need to be tested for their temperament to make sure they can behave properly with the handler and other people. Both the handler and animal need to undergo obedience training to ensure the safety and professionalism of everyone, which are vital in providing patients with the best care possible.
Benefits of AAT
Animal-assisted therapy can be performed in individual or group sessions and can be used in various settings like nursing homes, hospitals, therapist offices, outdoors, and treatment facilities. Depending on the goal of your treatment, the animal’s presence can serve several roles such as:
- Helping you feel safer and more comfortable during therapy sessions
- Reminding you to stay grounded and present
- Offering comfort through physical touch, which a therapist cannot give
- Making the situation more relaxed and comfortable so your therapist can easily build rapport
- Allowing you to practice social and communication skills
- Giving you unconditional affection
- Alleviating pain
- Improving motor skills by encouraging movement
- Serving as motivation for activities like socializing with members of the group
- Increasing self-esteem
What illnesses can AAT help with?
AAT has been linked to treating various mental health conditions, with the strongest positive effects for people with anxiety and depression. It is also effective in improving a person’s empathy and reducing distress when processing traumatic situations and emotions. This therapy can also benefit different age groups with conditions like autism spectrum disorder, dementia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, and substance use disorder. In Arizona, several rehab centers offer AAT to their patients to encourage them to stick to their treatment plan like in a drug rehab Phoenix residents go to.
AAT has many long-lasting benefits, but it might not be applicable for everyone. If any of the following applies to you, you may need to look for other types of therapy if you:
- Dislike or have a strong fear of animals.
- Experience allergic reactions to certain types of animals.
- Have conditions or undergoing treatments that reduce your immunity like HIV or AIDS, chemotherapy, or radiation.
- Are taking immune-suppressive medications.
Preparing for animal-assisted therapy
Once your physician has given you the go-ahead, make sure to choose a licensed therapist with experience in AAT. Keep in mind that you should feel comfortable with their approach and use animals in the sessions. You may also need to travel to the site where the animal is. Before attending your first appointment, inquire about any specific preparations you need to participate in the therapy. The activities may take place outdoors, so you need to dress accordingly and bring sun protection and water.
Interacting with animals can be relaxing and have lasting mental health benefits. If you are looking for alternative or complementary therapies, you may want to add AAT to your list of options. But before you make a decision, do proper research if AAT is the right fit for you and your condition. Don’t rush in choosing, and remember that animal-assisted therapy shouldn’t replace your medical treatments. When in doubt, it’s best to talk to your physician about it and discuss how therapies involving animals can support your recovery program.