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Animal Assisted Therapy

July 13, 2009 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

The window of our home overlooks an expansive private courtyard and garden. Weather permitting, almost every day I see men, women and children playing out there with their canine companions. Sometimes they simply rest together underneath the shade of a tree. On occasion, I even hear interspecies “conversations” going on. It’s actually a really beautiful sight to behold. The connection that is present between animals and humans is a profound one indeed. This observation has not escaped both traditional and modern health practitioners. Today’s column delves a bit into the research that exists on animal-assisted therapy (AAT).

While looking into this subject matter, I happened upon an amusing factoid. Apparently Sigmund Freud, the “father” of modern psychoanalysis, employed the services of one of his Chow Chow dogs during select therapeutic sessions. Dr. Freud believed that his favorite pet, Jo-Fi, helped relax his patients and, thereby, facilitated a more productive psychological environment. (1)

Freud’s specific application of AAT will probably never gain widespread acceptance. But harnessing the power of the special bond that exists between man and animal is something that is becoming more and more interesting to many physicians and psychologists. Dozens of studies over the past few decades attest to the very real impact that companionship and even transient exposure to birds, cats, dogs, farm animals, fish, horses, rabbits and other members of the animal kingdom can have on the human body and mind. In fact, a few recent review articles mention a wide range of conditions that may benefit from AAT, including addiction, AIDS, cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and even developmental disorders. (2,3)

  • Cancer – Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to improve depression and oxygen saturation in patients undergoing chemotherapy. It may also help to reduce “psychological distress” in children with cancer and their families, and help facilitate the healing process. (4,5,6)
  • Dementia – Perhaps the most extensive area of research into AAT is with regard to its effect in people with dementia. A positive research trend has prompted some experts to urge nursing homes and other senior treatment facilities to consider incorporating AAT into their standard protocol. Some of the benefits noted include better eating habits, a calming effect and improved communication skills and self esteem. (7,8,9,10,11)
  • Heart Health – A 2007 study in the American Journal of Critical Care found that animal-assisted therapy could lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels in patients hospitalized with heart failure. Other research indicates that neurochemicals “associated with a decrease in blood pressure” are affected both in animals and humans during AAT. (12,13)
  • Mental Health – Studies in nursing homes have discovered that AAT promotes key psychological improvements in quality of life measures such as the development of greater interest in oneself and others. That may explain why this therapeutic approach has also been associated with a reduction in feelings of loneliness. These effects are by no means relegated to older individuals. For instance, children with “pervasive developmental disorders” also become more playful and social after a course of AAT. In addition, animal-assisted therapy can help patients of all ages cope with the anxiety and fear that revolve around medical procedures. (14,15,16,17,18)
  • Pain – The management of pain in children is a sensitive topic in modern medicine. It appears that the use of AAT may provide a safe way to reduce pain sensations while simultaneously easing the psychological stress that often accompanies chronic pain conditions. (19)
  • Psychiatric Conditions – Exposure to farm animals may assist long term psychiatric patients become more self sufficient and improve their coping skills. A number of studies also point to significant benefit of AAT in furthering quality of life in those with schizophrenia – namely, improvements in the ability to experience pleasure, “interpersonal contact” and “independent self-care” were noted in those exposed to cat and dog companionship. (20,21,22,23)

Common Treatment Goals of Assisted-Animal Therapy

Reduction in physical and psychological pain
Improvement in self care and self esteem
A greater sense of personal control and purpose
Enhancement of positive sensations such as affection and pleasure
Increased optimism and feelings of empowerment
Greater levels of attention/concentration and interpersonal engagement
A reduction in feelings of agitation, anxiety and fear
Encouraging cooperation, empathy and problem solving skills
Lessening the likelihood of boredom, isolation and loneliness
Facilitating greater compliance and success rates during medical treatment

Another positive aspect of this mind-body approach is that its use may decrease the need for certain medications. Prescriptions that are typically used to treat a gamut of conditions – constipation, heart disease, pain, psychiatric conditions – may be reduced thanks to the symptomatic strides brought about by AAT. (24) I’m not suggesting that specially trained animals can replace standard medical care. But it does appear that they may be able to reduce the need for certain medications in some people. Of course, such adjustments in medication dosage should be conducted with the assistance of a health professional.

In closing, I’d like to point out a few additional relevant facts. It’s important to keep in mind that not all forms of AAT are appropriate under all circumstances. Issues relating to allergies, animal bites and the potential for infection in immune compromised individuals need to be carefully considered. (25) Having said that, there is almost always a way to incorporate some form of AAT into almost any situation. One example is the use of a fish aquarium. That may seem like a watered down version of animal-assisted therapy, but science recently proved otherwise in a group of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Regular exposure to the fish tank for 16 weeks resulted in improved eating patterns and nutritional status in those with AD and lower overall health care costs. (26)

Not all alternative treatments come in a bottle or at the point of a needle. The very best complementary therapies tap into the basic human need for connection and contact with those that can provide unconditional caring and love. In AAT we find a mode of healing that provides as much benefit to the patient as it does to the “therapist”. To my mind, this is an ideal form of holistic medicine.

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

Be well!


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Posted in Alternative Therapies, Heart Health, Mental Health

19 Comments & Updates to “Animal Assisted Therapy”

  1. Christina Crowe Says:

    Love the post!

    I agree. Even pets like fish give humans surprising health benefits. Back in June, I did a post in Salad Sticks about fish and the benefits they provide for humans. It’s amazing how these small little finned creatures can lower blood pressure, reduce stress, aid sleep, and so many others. More info at http://www.saladsticks.com/2009/06/fish-are-more-than-decoration.html

    I’ve always enjoyed fish myself and have first started the hobby 8 or 9 years ago. I can definitely say that I’ve witnessed quite a bit of those healing abilities fish, like most pets, affect humans with. Pets are truly remarkable creatures.

  2. JP Says:

    Thanks, Christina!

    Great input re: the healing power of fish. 🙂

    Be well!


  3. Special K Says:

    I am loving following your blog! As a psychologist, I can’t agree with you more: healing involves CONNECTION…in a related not, check out my challenge this week!

    Thanks for your inspiration!

  4. JP Says:

    Many thanks, Special K!

    I will check it out!

    Be well!


  5. Iggy Dalrymple Says:

    I’m sure you’ve heard the old wives tale about asthmatics benefiting from having a dog, usually specifying a Chihuahua.

    My late sister, who died from asthma, was told that the unscientific theory was that the dog would “steal” the disease from the sufferer. My sister was too tidy a housekeeper to ever consider such a remedy. I, on the other hand, sleep with a Jack Russell and my asthma is pretty much gone, though I attribute my cure more to acupuncture. Buddy, by the way, has developed a mild case of asthma and wheezes when he 1st awakens.

  6. anne h Says:

    There are many nursing facilities I go to where the animals LIVE there, and go from room to room. They curl up on a patient’s bed or chair. Or stretch out on a window sill.
    As a Hopsice Nurse, I have placed MANY a Canine Companion on the lap of a dying person..or in bed next to the patient. It helps the animals, too!

  7. JP Says:


    Maybe Buddy needs a Chihuahua play mate or some acupuncture. 🙂

    Be well!


  8. JP Says:

    That’s awesome, Anne. I hope more of that kind of compassion makes it’s way into the medical system.

    Be well!


  9. Karen Thompson Says:

    My cat and I are an animal-assisted therapy team in Portland, OR. I love your article, and have pinned it to my AAT board on Pinterest. Thank you for the detailed descriptions of the benefits of this therapy. I will be forwarding it to some of the people I meet in our work who are interested in starting this at more retirement centers around our area.

  10. Robin Bidwell Says:

    We have a miniature horse, Scooby Boo that has been doing animal assisted therapy in Tampa Bay, Florida for three years. He has brought a great deal of health and healing, emotionally and physically to many. Thank you for the article. I will be sharing it!

  11. JP Says:

    Many thanks, Karen and Robin! I appreciate the important work you do and your support!

    Be well!


  12. JP Says:

    Update: AAT improves mental health in children with mental disorders …


    Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2015 Jan 29.

    The use of Animal-Assisted Therapy in adolescents with acute mental disorders: A randomized controlled study.

    OBJECTIVES: The aim of this study was to compare the effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) with a standard treatment protocol in children and adolescents admitted to the psychiatry hospital for acute mental disorders. We used a methodology involving high quality standards for AAT research.

    DESIGN: A pre-post experimental design with a randomized controlled trial (RCT) in 34 hospitalized patients (17 treatment, 17 control) was carried out.

    MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: The study focused on improvement in clinical status including, global functioning measured by the Children Global Assessment Scale (C GAS), format of care and ordinary school attendance measured by a rating scale.

    RESULTS: Our results indicate a statistically significant improvement in global functioning, reduction in format of care and increased ordinary school attendance in the treatment group, but not in the control group.

    CONCLUSIONS: Our results verify that AAT can have significant positive effects on therapeutic progress and the recovery process.

    Be well!


  13. JP Says:

    Update 06/11/15:


    PLoS One. 2015 Jun 3;10(6):e0125813.

    Post-operative benefits of animal-assisted therapy in pediatric surgery: a randomised study.

    BACKGROUND: Interest in animal-assisted therapy has been fuelled by studies supporting the many health benefits. The purpose of this study was to better understand the impact of an animal-assisted therapy program on children response to stress and pain in the immediate post-surgical period.

    PATIENTS AND METHODS: Forty children (3-17 years) were enrolled in the randomised open-label, controlled, pilot study. Patients were randomly assigned to the animal-assisted therapy-group (n = 20, who underwent a 20 min session with an animal-assisted therapy dog, after surgery) or the standard-group (n = 20, standard postoperative care). The study variables were determined in each patient, independently of the assigned group, by a researcher unblinded to the patient’s group. The outcomes of the study were to define the neurological, cardiovascular and endocrinological impact of animal-assisted therapy in response to stress and pain. Electroencephalogram activity, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, cerebral prefrontal oxygenation, salivary cortisol levels and the faces pain scale were considered as outcome measures.

    RESULTS: After entrance of the dog faster electroencephalogram diffuse beta-activity (> 14 Hz) was reported in all children of the animal-assisted therapy group; in the standard-group no beta-activity was recorded (100% vs 0%, p<0.001). During observation, some differences in the time profile between groups were observed for heart rate (test for interaction p = 0.018), oxygen saturation (test for interaction p = 0.06) and cerebral oxygenation (test for interaction p = 0.09). Systolic and diastolic blood pressure were influenced by animal-assisted therapy, though a higher variability in diastolic pressure was observed. Salivary cortisol levels did not show different behaviours over time between groups (p=0.70). Lower pain perception was noted in the animal-assisted group in comparison with the standard-group (p = 0.01).

    CONCLUSION: Animal-assisted therapy facilitated rapid recovery in vigilance and activity after anaesthesia, modified pain perception and induced emotional prefrontal responses. An adaptative cardiovascular response was also present.

    Be well!


  14. JP Says:

    Updated 12/11/15:


    Psychiatr Prax. 2015 Oct 21.

    [Establishment of an Animal Based Therapy at a University Hospital for Psychiatry: Results of a Preliminary Study and Future Prospects].

    Objective: Dogs have been integrated in human society over centuries. This process has selected unique social and communicative skills. Dogs are thus able to represent social substitutes for human counterparts in cases of social withdrawal. Furthermore, dogs act as “social catalysts” in promoting interhuman encounters. Thus, the integration of dogs in psychotherapeutic concepts addressing social and interpersonal deficits may be of special interest.

    Methods: The present investigation reports the results of a pilot study to establish animal-assisted therapy (dogs) at a psychiatric department. The animal-assisted intervention straddled the following areas: (1) contact making, communication and orientation to needs, (2) recreation and play, (3) outward orientation, (4) release and farewell. The sample comprised 22 subjects.

    Results: The results demonstrated in particular that the animal-assisted intervention significantly promoted unspecific aspects of positive affectivity and wellbeing. Evaluation of the overall acceptance of the dog on the psychiatric ward revealed very positive feedback.

    Conclusions: We conclude that animal-assisted therapies represent a significant enchrichment of the therapeutic context, that may be used to enhance the patients’ openness and adherence to conventional therapies.

    Be well!


  15. JP Says:

    Updated 06/26/16:


    NeuroRehabilitation. 2016 Jun 18.

    Effectiveness of Animal Assisted Therapy after brain injury: A bridge to improved outcomes in CRT.

    BACKGROUND: Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has been widely used as a complementary therapy in mental health treatment especially to remediate social skill deficits. The goal of AAT is to improve social, emotional, and cognitive functioning.

    OBJECTIVE: The purpose of this article is to draw upon the literature on AAT and explore specific applications to cognitive rehabilitation therapy (CRT) and social skills training.

    METHODS: This study provides a systematic review of most of the available literature on ATT and assesses that potential uses of ATT for brain injury rehabilitation.

    RESULTS: Although the efficacy of AAT is not currently well documented by rigorous research, (Kazin, 2010) anecdotal evidence suggests that brain injury survivors may benefit from the combination of AAT and cognitive rehabilitation techniques.

    CONCLUSIONS: Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) survivors with cognitive impairments can benefit from AAT as part of a comprehensive and holistic rehabilitation treatment plan.

    Be well!


  16. JP Says:

    Updated 10/25/16:


    Clin Psychopharmacol Neurosci. 2016 Nov 30;14(4):357-364.

    The Effects of Equine-assisted Activities and Therapy on Resting-state Brain Function in Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Pilot Study.

    Objective: Equine-assisted activities and therapy (EAA/T) have been used as adjunct treatment options for physical and psychosocial rehabilitation. However, the therapeutic effects on resting-state brain function have not yet been studied. The aim of this study is to investigate the effects of EAA/T on participants with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by comparing resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) signals and their clinical correlates.

    Methods: Ten participants with ADHD participated in a 12-week EAA/T program without any medication. Two rs-fMRIs were acquired for all participants before and after EAA/T. For estimating therapeutic effect, the regional homogeneity (ReHo) method was applied to capture the changes in the regional synchronization of functional signals.

    Results: After the EAA/T program, clear symptom improvement was found even without medication. Surface-based pairwise comparisons revealed that ReHo in the right precuneus and right pars orbitalis clusters had significantly diminished after the program. Reduced ReHo in the right precuneus cluster was positively correlated with changes in the scores on DuPaul’s ADHD Rating Scale-Korean version.

    Conclusion: Our results indicate that EAA/T is associated with short-range functional connectivity in the regions related to the default mode network and the behavioral inhibition system, which are associated with symptom improvement.

    Be well!


  17. JP Says:

    Updated 03/12/19:


    J Pediatr Nurs. 2019 Mar 7;46:55-61.

    The effect of a pet therapy and comparison intervention on anxiety in hospitalized children.

    The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effect of a brief pet therapy visit and a comparison intervention on anxiety in hospitalized children. This quasi-experimental study compared state anxiety before and after structured research interventions in a convenience sample of children between the ages six and 17 (N = 93) in two groups. Participants were assigned to the pet therapy group or control group, based upon timing of data collection. Participants in each group received either a visit from the research assistant, therapy dog and handler, or from the research assistant for completion of a puzzle. The child’s anxiety was measured using the State-Trait Anxiety Scale for Children (STAIC) S-Anxiety Scale before and after the visit and parents completed a brief background questionnaire. Intervention and comparison groups had no significant differences in key demographic factors or baseline anxiety level. While state anxiety decreased significantly in both groups, children in the pet therapy group experienced a significantly greater decrease in anxiety (p = .004). In addition, parents reported high levels of satisfaction with the pet therapy program. Study findings provide support for a brief pet therapy visit with a trained dog and handler as a tool decrease to anxiety in hospitalized children while promoting parent satisfaction. When resources for providing pet therapy visits are limited, clinicians may consider prioritizing children who are most affected by anxiety.

    Be well!


  18. JP Says:

    Updated 03/16/19:


    Soc Work Health Care. 2019 Apr;58(4):412-430.

    Service dog training programs for veterans with PTSD: results of a pilot controlled study.

    Service dog programs are increasingly being explored as complementary or alternative interventions for military veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This paper details the results of a control group, pre-and-post pilot investigation evaluating the use of a 14-week service dog training program for veterans in central Florida. Thirty veterans diagnosed with PTSD, 15 in the intervention group and 15 in the waitlist controlled group, completed all pretests and posttests measures, consisting of the 136-item Trauma Symptom Inventory-2 and the 36-item World Health Organization-Disability Assessment Schedule 2.0. Compared to demographically similar veterans in the control group, participants who completed the service dog training program demonstrated significant decreases in posttraumatic symptomatology, intra/interpersonal difficulties associated with psychological trauma, and in disabilities secondary to their PTSD. Study findings, in combination with results from two other recently published controlled investigations, provide evidence supporting the endorsement and use of service dog programs as helpful complementary or alternative treatment options for some veterans. Social work practitioners may want to consider referring their veteran clients with PTSD to qualified service dog programs for adjunctive support when they are having difficulty engaging with or benefiting from office-based traditional therapy approaches.

    Be well!


  19. JP Says:

    Updated 03/25/19:


    J Autism Dev Disord. 2019 Mar 21.

    Effects of Dog Assisted Therapy for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Trial.

    Effective treatments of highly prevalent stress-related outcomes such as depression and anxiety are understudied in adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A randomized controlled trial with baseline, post-intervention, and 10-week follow-up, that explores the effects of animal assisted therapy (AAT) was conducted. In total, 53 adults with ASD with normal to high intelligence were randomized in an intervention (N = 27) versus waiting list control group (N = 26). The remarkable adherence to the therapy program by study participants and the program’s clinically relevant effects indicate that AAT with dogs can be used to reduce perceived stress and symptoms of agoraphobia, and to improve social awareness and communication in adults with ASD with normal to high intelligence.

    Be well!


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