Animal Assisted TherapyJuly 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!
Tags: Anxiety, Cancer, Pain
Posted in Alternative Therapies, Heart Health, Mental Health