Not only do they make our days more joyful, but animals can be the greatest healers, too. Just ask the college students to get ‘pup visits’ to lighten the exam stress. Or the healthcare practitioners getting comforted by dogs during a long, stressful pandemic. Or even the prison inmates that are less likely to relapse and re-offend because of some furry support.
Animals don’t judge you - they just love you! Unconditionally. It’s comforting, calming, and subtly empowering all at the same time. And it opens up the space for a whole lot of healing. It’s why therapists have started to harness the healing power of lovable furballs in what’s called Animal Assisted Therapy.
So what is animal therapy…and could it work for you? Let’s find out.
What is Animal Therapy?
In a nutshell: Licensed therapists use animal support to help people work through mental, emotional, or physical challenges.
Animal Assisted Therapy incorporates a trained animal – most commonly a dog, horse, cat, or bird – into the treatment plan in different ways, depending on the kind of support the patient needs.
How Are Animal-Assisted Activities Different Than Therapy?
Animal assisted activities are not the same as therapy (although they can be just as beneficial). Activities don’t call for a mental health professional, but simply count on the presence of the animal to bring comfort and therapeutic benefits. The perfect examples? Therapy dogs in hospitals to cheer up patients, or therapy animals in senior centers for emotional support.
The Science Behind Animal Assisted Therapy .
Although it’s still being studied, there are already reports of the amazing benefits of puppy dog love - and all animal love, for that matter.
- Interactions with animals increase oxytocin levels, AKA the ‘Love Hormone’ that gives a positive mood boost.
- After animal contact, levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine change, leading to reduced levels of psychological distress - including a decrease in fear and anxiety.
- Human-animal interactions invoke more empathy and improve learning abilities.
Why is Animal Therapy Important?
Therapy with animals isn’t just more fun…it can also be highly effective in its own way. Here are some benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy:
Interacting with animals increases our trust in other people, which is especially important in a patient-therapist relationship. By association, the presence of a support animal can increase a patient’s trust in the therapist.
Animals help patients feel emotionally and physically comfortable. This can help patients approach and open up about difficult subjects that are essential to their healing.
Therapy can be a trying time and emotional support animals give patients something to look forward to. They can be the motivation patients need to show up to sessions regularly (especially teenagers).
There’s such a thing as healthy distractions and this is one of them! Animals can divert a patient’s attention to something ‘feel good’ to take the edge off of therapy.
So How Does Animal Therapy Work?
At the root of animal therapy is the bond that develops between individuals and animals - one that’s innately trustworthy and full of loving support (with no difficulties in breaking the ice). Typically, the animal’s handler brings the therapy animal into appointments and works closely with the doctor to help the patient progress on their healing journey.
Depending on what they’re working towards, the patients can: get comforted by petting the animal, engage with the animal to help with emotional learning, or just benefit from the soothing presence of the animal.
Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy.
Animals are the real deal when it comes to healing. In fact, their positive impact helps people raise their physical and mental health.
Physical Health Benefits of Animal Assisted Interventions
- Slows the breath to reduce anxiety.
- Lowers blood pressure and better cardiovascular health.
- Possibly reduces the medications needed by patients.
- Reduces chronic pain.
Mental Health Benefits of Animal Assisted Interventions
- Gives the nervous system a break by activating the relaxation response.
- Releases hormones (oxytocin, serotonin, prolactin) that elevate the mood.
- Decreases anxiety.
- Decreases loneliness.
- Helps in mental stimulation or recall (including those with head injuries or Alzheimer's).
- Emotional stability.
- Better self-worth and trust.
- Improves social and communication skills.
Who Provides Animal Therapy?
Animal Assisted Therapy is conducted by licensed practitioners like psychotherapists, social workers, or other mental health experts. The practitioner creates a formal treatment plan complete with therapeutic animal activities, patient goals, and ways to track the progress and effectiveness of the treatment.
Note: Animal therapy isn’t usually a standalone therapeutic method - it’s often used in addition to traditional therapy. Conditions Treated By Animal-Assisted Interventions Some really upbeat news? Animal Assisted Therapy has been shown to effectively treat serious health and mental conditions.
One study compared the effects of dog-assisted therapy with human-only therapy on senior care residents living with dementia. The result? The group that used Animal Assisted Therapy showed better depression scores.
When animals are around, our oxytocin levels go up, while our stress levels go down. This ends up in less fear and anxiety, and better overall emotional health.
Common hallmarks of autism are struggles with social interactions and forming relationships - something that animal therapy is proven to help with. Animals can act as a ‘social facilitator’ to connect autistic individuals with those around them; they can also be a buffer against social anxiety by being a “positive focus of attention.”
In a recent study, survivors of child abuse and military veterans showed a reduction in PTSD symptoms. Support animals helped the participants feel safe and out of danger which made way for more mindful moments. And while emotional numbing is common for PTSD patients, animals helped bring out positive emotions and warmth from the participants.
Reflect: Your Companion On The Wellness Journey.
Animal therapy is the perfect reminder that you need support – and lots of it! – on the path to wellness. This is one of the reasons we created the Reflect Orb: an at-home biofeedback device that tracks your physiological symptoms to show you what brings your stress levels down…and relaxation levels way up!
Reflect is a great add-on to your current therapies or routines, and a way to incorporate a daily relaxation practice into your life. Get Reflect & Get Relaxed.