Using Pets as Healing Partners

Ask any animal lover and they’ll tell you that pets can help you heal nearly any hurt. But ask a scientist and you might be surprised to receive the same answer! Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), and Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) have gained some attention from researchers due to the positive (or is that “pawsitive”) outcomes reported. While it may seem intuitive to pet owners that pets can help you “feel better” just how could a pet assist in recovery?

Some definitions

Not every pet program is the same. AAT is a very specific type of therapy with goals and measurement of progress at its core. This is no casual "pet the puppy" plan, but a highly specific treatment approach in which human service professionals set specific goals for the client and the use of the animal is designed to help the client reach that goal. Goals are objective and measurable – for instance a child with fine motor coordination problems might participate in AAT activities in which the child practices specific fine motor skills such as fastening a leash onto a collar or opening a treat container, and progress in developing grip and coordination are measured.

Animal assisted activities are much less formal and structured. Goals are not set beyond the most basic goal of enhancing whatever healing or progress is being worked toward by having an animal present. This is more of a “pet and enjoy” type program, in which clients have supervised but unstructured contact with the therapy animals.

Benefits of contact with animals

Physical health benefits of AAA are well documented. Petting a friendly animal (it appears to not matter very much what type of animal is used as long as it is friendly – some programs boast certified chickens and llamas on their roster!) has been shown to:

  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Reduce heart rate
  • Decrease reported anxiety
  • Elevate mood
  • Increase beta-endorphin levels
  • Decrease reported feelings of tension or stress
  • Stabilize mood
  • Improve anger management
  • Raise self esteem
  • Improve frustration tolerance

Therapy animals have been employed by substance abuse programs, at risk teen programs, and in prisons. They are used in schools to help with reading problems (studies show that reading to an animal lowers self consciousness, improves confidence, and increases enjoyment – hence little Johnny is more willing to try to read!), and in nursing homes to provide comfort and enjoyment to residents. Equine therapy (hippotherapy) has been used in substance abuse settings as well.

 

How does it work?

There are a number of different models for use of therapy animals in substance abuse or mental health settings. In out patient settings, a certified therapy animal would schedule visits to the treatment center and time with the therapy pet would be scheduled into the day’s activities. These visits are typically up to 15 minutes with an individual client and clients are visited one at a time. The therapy animal and handler would get regular breaks for water, rest, and pitstops outside. In an inpatient setting, the animals may actually live at the rehab and are cared for by the rehab staff as well as clients. Cats are often managed in this way, where clients may practice responsibility by caring for the animals, and gain solace and unconditional acceptance from time spent with them.

In early recovery, emotions can be overwhelming, and the wordless love and acceptance that an animal can emanate can help to open the floodgates and allow for a safe emotional release. In addition, therapy animals can be grounding to people in recovery, as they provide a role model for setting priorities: food, water, shelter, medical care etc. Caring for an animal can help clients learn to care for themselves.

A few safety tips

Before getting involved with AAT or AAA at a treatment center, make sure to check on a few key safety issues. Only use animal and handler teams that have been certified and maintain their certification. This ensures that the animals are trained and have passed temperament testing to make sure they are well suited to therapy work. This also ensures that handlers are aware of best practices in AAT/AAA and groom animals prior to visits, trains their animals to behave appropriately, and know how to manage their animals to prevent fatigue or stress to any involved – animal or human.

In addition, screen participants prior to setting up the program to make sure that clients with allergies or prior bad experiences have been accommodated and kept safe. Not all clients are ready for close contact with animals: be sure to discuss exactly what the therapy situation might be like before allowing any clients to interact with any animals.

That said, most pet programs are very successful and for many clients, a memorable and profoundly positive part of treatment. For some, pets become an important aspect of sober living and an integral part of relapse prevention: caring for an animal becomes an anchor in the on-going process of recovery.

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