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Animal Assisted Therapy (AAP), sometimes also referred to as pet therapy or simply animal therapy, is a form of alternative or complementary therapy in which animals are involved as part of a treatment plan.
There are several different approaches to Animal-assisted therapy. It primarily involves interacting with animals whilst talking to a therapist, who will help you to explore your thoughts, feelings and experiences whilst the animal or animals keep the patient at ease. Spending time with animals tends to help individuals to both open up and relax.
Research has found that petting a dog or cat for just ten minutes can lower the stress hormone cortisol whilst also increasing levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. This is the same hormone that bonds mothers to babies and is therefore the hormone that creates a bond between humans and animals.
Whilst animal-assisted therapy has been largely used within the treatment of mental health conditions, it is growing in traction within the care arena too. More and more care facilities are recognising the importance of taking a complementary approach to traditional care practices. Those within the care arena, and particularly in the field of elderly care, are demonstrating physical, emotional, and psychological benefits as a direct result of animal-assisted therapy.
Here’s everything you need to know about how forging close relationships with animals can enhance well-being and healing amongst patients, and what the advantages of animal-assisted therapy in a range of care settings can be:
Understanding Animal-Assisted Therapy
Animal therapy works on the basis that animals can provide comfort to humans, building on a concept known as the human-animal bond. There is empirical evidence to demonstrate that humans desire to build relationships with animals and that the resulting bond can produce a calming state and improve mood and general well-being.
It’s important to note that, as a complementary therapy, animal-assisted therapy is intended to assist and enhance a treatment programme but should not replace traditional treatment approaches.
When they think of animal-assisted therapy, many people think of dogs, and it is true that dogs are the animals most frequently utilised as therapy animals. But other types of animals can be used in therapy too. A list of recognised therapy animals includes cats, dogs, chickens, guinea pigs, horses, pigs and even fish and birds.
Whilst stroking and touching the animals is a common form of animal-assisted therapy, other forms of animal therapy may involve grooming, washing or feeding the animal, as well as simply watching or observing them.
Animal therapy may sound simple, but it is not the same as pet ownership. The animals involved in animal-assisted therapy must be properly trained and their handlers fully qualified. To become an animal-assisted therapist, you will need to complete an Animal Assisted Therapy Diploma Course. This is a level 3 diploma and will take 150 hours to complete.
Therapy animals should start their training when they’re young. They will need to learn to stay calm in stressful situations, and before their training can begin, they must have the right temperament for the work. Therapy animals should:
- Enjoy being petted and stroked by different people
- Not be needy or clingy
- Be unreactive to sudden movements, and stay calm around medical equipment
- Be clean, well-groomed, and fully vaccinated
There isn’t a designated qualification for therapy animals in the UK, but many therapy animals do have official accreditations and have undergone extensive training to ensure they are a good fit for the work.
Physical Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy
Animal-assisted therapy can be utilised in a wide range of different care settings, and there are huge benefits to working with these animals. Some of the main physical benefits of animal-assisted therapy include:
- Lowered blood pressure and reduced heart rate
- Increased physical activity and mobility
- Enhanced motor skills and coordination
- Accelerated healing and recovery processes
Emotional and Psychological Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy
Whilst physical stimulus responses are easy to measure, and it is easy to ascertain that an individual’s blood pressure or heart rate will decrease when they are spending therapeutic time with an animal, it is less easy to measure the psychological and emotional benefits of animal-assisted therapy. However, there are undeniable emotional and psychological benefits of animal-assisted therapy. These include:
- Reduced anxiety, stress, and depression
- Enhanced mood and emotional well-being
- Increased social interaction and improved communication
- Boosted self-esteem and confidence
- Alleviated feelings of loneliness and isolation
Animal-Assisted Therapy in Specific Care Settings
There is no limit to the range of care settings in which animal-assisted therapy can be utilised, though it is a complementary therapy that should be avoided in arenas that must be kept sterile. Some of the most common settings for animal-assisted therapy include:
- Animal-assisted therapy in hospitals and medical facilities
- Animal-assisted therapy in mental health institutions
- Animal-assisted therapy in nursing homes and assisted living communities
- Animal-assisted therapy in schools and educational settings
Case Studies and Success Stories
In an article published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), two members of the association shared positive stories of how animal-assisted therapy can be used successfully.
In the article Sarah Urwin writes that animals can provide a bridge for people who have a lot of defence systems and anxieties, sharing that “focusing on an animal can help clients relax, talk honestly and start to explore how they feel about experiences in their lives.”
Dogs and cats are often the animals chosen as therapy animals for individuals who have mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or trauma. Ms Urwin goes on to state that “Getting up close to the animals- cuddling, touching, stroking – can help clients feel calmer and more connected. It can stimulate the senses and lower blood pressure and heart rate. If someone is depressed or shut down, this can be really helpful.”
The internet is a wealth of information, and home to a huge number of positive case studies and success stories clearly demonstrating the many benefits of animal-assisted therapy.
The HugglePets in the Community website is a great example, sharing many case studies of the positive impact animal-assisted therapy can have. Some examples include:
- Leo, age 7, was struggling with anxiety and worries all the time. Following his animal-assisted therapy sessions, his mum stated that “Since seeing Alicia (therapist) his moods and confidence have improved significantly. He has learnt coping ways/techniques which with more practice and consistency he will use without thinking.” His AAT therapist stated that “Leo has been open to trying new things…and has been better able to manage his worries and anger.”
- The Haven Refuge Centre, Wolverhampton. Animal-assisted therapy doesn’t just have to be used in one-to-one settings, it can also be used, and can be hugely beneficial, in group environments too. One testimonial demonstrates this clearly: “The children loved the new Sensory Activity Centre, and thought the Community Aquarium and all the fish were fantastic! We will definitely be back to visit again for more animal therapy-related”
Ethical Considerations and Safety Measures
W.C. Fields coined the famous phrase that you should ‘never work with children or animals’ and the reason for this is because both children and animals can be unpredictable. No animal can be completely controlled, and it’s important to note that whilst AAT animals can be trained, that doesn’t mean that this training is foolproof.
This means that AAT animal handlers, as well as patients working with AAT, should be prepared for anything. An animal may choose not to be handled, may wish to leave a room or situation, or may need to utilise the bathroom during a therapy session.
Care settings that use animal-assisted therapy should maintain hygiene and infection control protocols. One of the most important ways to prevent infection during animal sessions is to ensure all clients practise good hand hygiene. Animal handlers can encourage this by leading the way and demonstrating good hand hygiene and good infection control practices.
Figures show that 6 in every 10 known infectious diseases in people are spread from animals. As many animal visits take place amongst people that are already vulnerable or who have weakened immune systems, this makes good infection control absolutely essential. One of the primary factors that lead numerous care facilities to prohibit visits from therapy animals is the concern regarding infection control and the potential effects on their patients’ physical well-being
For this reason, all therapy animals should undergo regular health screening to ensure they are free from transmissible diseases and parasites. These health screenings are also good for the animal’s overall health and well-being. And ensuring the well-being and welfare of therapy animals is an integral part of the AAT animal handlers’ role.
Therapy animals should be well groomed before each visit, to reduce the likelihood that they will carry an infection that can be passed on in their fur, hair and feathers. Whilst there are now government rules in place about the treatment of therapy animals, it is recommended that they are bathed or cleaned no more than 24 hours before each visit they make to a care facility.
If an animal will be sitting on the lap or bed of a patient then a barrier should be used between the pet and the client. Again, this will help to minimise infection risk, as it will prevent any infection from being passed between the animals’ coats to the patient’s bedding or clothing.
Finally, though all therapy animals are well trained, there is always a risk that they may need to eliminate waste during their visit. This is more likely to occur in animals that can’t be toilet trained, such as guinea pigs or horses. If an animal does eliminate waste during a visit, it is the responsibility of the animal handler to clean and disinfect this immediately. In fact, all equipment used should be disinfected by the handler after each visit. This equipment will vary depending on the animal and the type of care facility, but examples include collars, leads, harnesses, beds, blankets, toys and brushes.
Animals and animal therapists should always be highly qualified, in order to minimise any safety or ethical risks. The wellbeing of the animal should always be the primary concern of the AAT therapist, and if an animal appears distressed or does not want to spend time with any patient then they should not be forced to do so. The health, safety and happiness of the animal are integral to the success of any AAT session.
Integrating Animal-Assisted Therapy into Care Practices
Animal-Assisted Therapy is not the same as an animal play session and should not be treated as such. Whilst many farms or pet owners will offer to bring their animals into care facilities, and this can have its own benefits, animal-assisted therapy is a more structured form of complementary therapy and should not be practised without the support of a licensed healthcare professional. Animal meeting opportunities in care settings should instead be referred to as animal-assisted activities (AAA).
There are different types of AAT, and the right one for your care situation will depend on the role and function you wish the animal to play in the therapeutic process. Some of the best ways to integrate AAT into your existing programme of support and enrichment for those in your care include:
- Collaborating with healthcare professionals and therapists
- Designing appropriate therapy programs and interventions
- Incorporating animals into existing care plans
The advantages of animal-assisted therapy are far-reaching and offer a unique and valuable approach to care. By understanding and harnessing the benefits of AAT, care providers can enhance the well-being and healing of individuals across various settings.
The power of the human-animal bond should not be underestimated. Animal Assisted Therapy can have a huge range of physical and emotional benefits as a result of this bond. Further research and implementation of animal-assisted therapy are warranted to continue improving care practices worldwide, and to ensure that AAT can be brought to as wide an audience as possible.