Animal Assisted Therapy and its scientifically proven benefits


What is animal assisted therapy? Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a form of therapeutic treatment that involves the use of animals to aid the patient. During AAT, the client, therapist, and animal will participate in specific activities according to the type of plan the patient requires. It is often used to treat conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, autism, behavioral issues, and many physical ailments (Complementary Health Practice Review, 2007). 

The effectiveness of AAT depends on the type of animal and the individual being treated, but in general animals offer significant comfort to those undergoing therapeutic or medical care. Animals can also alert for danger and even perform certain actions that aid the person in need. Let’s dive into the benefits of animal therapy, the scientific proof behind these benefits, and why animal assisted therapy is a legitimate benefit that can improve patient care.

Eric Ward / Unsplash / “photo of man hugging tan dog” / Unsplash License

Mental and Physical Health Benefits

Research has shown that the use of animals within various therapeutic practices has a positive effect on both mental and physical health. 

Stress Reduction and Emotional Wellbeing

Interacting with therapy animals has been found to trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and trust. Spending time with these animals can reduce stress and anxiety levels significantly, creating a calming and soothing effect on patients. For individuals facing mental health challenges, animal-assisted therapy can foster emotional healing and promote feelings of happiness and well-being (UCLA Health).

Improved Social Skills and Communication

Therapy animals act as great facilitators of social interactions, encouraging patients to engage in conversation and form connections with others. This is especially beneficial for children with autism spectrum disorders, as it can enhance their social responsiveness and increase verbal communication (Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, 2010).

Physical Health and Rehabilitation

Beyond its psychological benefits, animal-assisted therapy has a positive impact on physical health and recovery. Patients recovering from injuries or undergoing medical treatments have shown faster recovery rates and reduced pain perception when interacting with therapy animals. The simple act of petting these animals can trigger the release of endorphins, acting as natural painkillers and supporting the healing process (Pain Medicine, 2012).

Using animals in therapeutic practices offers a multifaceted approach to enhancing well-being, and has the potential to positively transform both mental and physical health outcomes for individuals across various contexts.

Dzmitry Dudov / Unsplash / “golden retriever with yellow and black harness” / Unsplash License

Scientifically Proving the Benefits of Therapy Animals

Incorporating animals into healthcare is not just for show – there is compelling evidence of the positive effects it has on the wellbeing of those going through therapy and medical treatments, according to the American Journal of Critical Care, 2007.

Researchers found that hospitalized heart failure patients who spent 12 minutes with a trained dog experienced boosted heart and lung function when compared to those who were solely left in the care of a human volunteer. Patients experienced less anxiety and even had a reduction in hormones associated with stress and negative emotions, such as cortisol and adrenaline. AAT has even been shown to reduce blood pressure in both healthy and hypertensive patients.

Researchers also studied 76 hospitalized heart failure patients divided into 3 groups. One group spent time with a volunteer dog, one worked with a human volunteer, and one was left alone. Each group spent 12 minutes in their respective treatment while scientists measured hemodynamic pressures just before the intervention, 4 minutes before the end of the intervention, and 4 minutes after the intervention. Epinephrine and norepinephrine levels were also measured to test the level of anxiety of each patient.

Some key results from the study include:

Anxiety Reduction 

Participants within the volunteer-dog team experienced a significant 24 percent drop in anxiety scores, whereas the volunteer-only group saw a 10 percent reduction, and there was no change in anxiety scores for the at-rest group. Anxiety levels were measured using the Spielberger’s self-report state anxiety inventory, indicating that the presence of the volunteer-dog team had a more pronounced effect in alleviating anxiety compared to the other groups.

Stress Hormone Levels

The study found that the volunteer-dog team group exhibited a substantial decrease in stress hormone (epinephrine) levels, with an average drop of 14.1 picograms/mL or 17 percent. In contrast, the volunteer-only group showed a mere 2 percent decrease, while the at-rest group experienced a 7 percent increase in stress hormone levels. This suggests that the presence of the therapy dogs had a calming effect, leading to reduced stress responses in the patients.

Pulmonary Capillary Wedge

 Pulmonary capillary wedge, a measurement of left atrial pressure, decreased by an average of 2.1 mmHg (10 percent) at the end of the intervention for patients receiving volunteer-dog team therapy. However, it increased by 3 percent in the volunteer-only group and 5 percent in the at-rest group. These findings indicate that the therapy dogs may have contributed to improved heart function and reduced pressure on the left atrium.

Systolic Pulmonary Artery Pressure

 Systolic pulmonary artery pressure, a measure of pressure in the lungs, decreased by 5 percent during and after therapy in the volunteer-dog team group. In contrast, it rose during and after therapy in the other two groups. These results suggest that the presence of the therapy dogs had a positive impact on pulmonary artery pressure, potentially leading to improved lung function in patients.

Right Atrial Pressure, Norepinephrine Level, and Heart Rate

The volunteer-dog team group showed more improvement compared to the volunteer-only group in terms of right atrial pressure, norepinephrine levels (another stress hormone), and heart rate. This further supports the idea that the presence of therapy dogs had beneficial physiological effects on the patients.

That’s a remarkable showing of the real, measured health benefits of animal assisted therapy. This study shows that the use of animals isn’t just for show: reduced anxiety, stress hormone levels, blood pressure, and heart rate are all benefits of AAT that give it the scientific stamp of approval.

Annie spratt / Unsplash / “girl petting dog” / Unsplash License

AAT as a Viable Resource in Healthcare

Animal-assisted therapy has proven to be a powerful and valuable approach to promoting well-being and healing. The presence of therapy animals can significantly reduce stress and anxiety, enhance emotional and psychological well-being, and foster improved social interactions and communication. Moreover, it has positive effects on physical health, including cardiovascular function and rehabilitation.

In specific cases, such as volunteer-dog team therapy for heart failure patients, the impact of animal-assisted therapy is even more pronounced, resulting in reduced anxiety, improved heart function, and better physiological outcomes.

Considering these impressive findings, animal-assisted therapy should be seriously considered as an adjunct to medical treatments, providing patients with comfort, love, and support during their challenging times. The unique bond between humans and animals can create a nurturing and healing environment, making a significant difference in the lives of those seeking care and recovery.

All rights reserved ©2016 - 2023 Achievable, Inc.