Experiential Therapy

What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy & How Does It Work?

Most people love animals and find them to have a calming effect on their psyche. As Psychology Today discusses, human coexistence with other animals is factored into our DNA as we are pack animals by nature.[1] For this reason, it can feel rewarding to care for and spend time with an animal because it was advantageous to us from an evolutionary standpoint.

It’s not just about what animals can do for humans. While making an animal happy is not particularly complicated, humans can experience immediate gratification when they care for animals. In short, the happiness-making is reciprocal between humans and other animals.

equine therapy

Research Findings on Effectiveness

According to the majority of research, animals can effectively enhance therapeutic healing in humans.[2] The following is a brief overview of some of the research findings on animal-assisted therapy in different contexts:

  • A Purdue University study reviewed 14 clinical trials that considered the impact of animal-assisted therapy on children with autism spectrum disorders. Each of the clinical trials revealed that the children who received animal-assisted therapy showed improvements in 27 of 30 of the treatment outcomes measured.
  • One study surveyed 28 separate animal-assisted therapy research projects conducted from 1997 to 2009 in the context of treatment for people with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, Down’s syndrome, and developmental disabilities. Each of the 28 studies found that the participants with these (and other) disorders who received animal-assisted therapy received benefits that the control group did not.
  • In a neuroscientist-led review of 28 animal-assisted therapy studies conducted from 2005 to 2011, 26 of the studies reported beneficial outcomes for participants who received this form of treatment.
beneficial outcomes

Note: A review of 49 animal-assisted therapy studies, including 19 unpublished dissertations of PhD candidates, supported the “file drawer effect” (the tendency for research studies with positive outcomes to be published while studies with negative outcomes are not). The unpublished works showed a lower incidence of positive results compared to the published ones. This finding calls into question if animal-assisted therapy is effective enough to qualify as a legitimate therapeutic approach.[3]

dogs used in therapy

Although animal-assisted therapy is not without its critics, the general tenor is welcoming. To illuminate this point, consider the experience of Cynthia Chandler, professor of counseling at the University of North Texas and an author on the topic of animal-assisted therapy.[4] Chandler has been working and volunteering in this area for nine years (and counting) at an inpatient psychiatric hospital. Chandler has found that some of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy defy quantification but are entirely evident to her in practice. For instance, Chandler works with her dog, Bailey. The healthy, loving, and caring relationship Chandler has with Bailey serves as a positive model for clients and helps them to feel safer, which in turn promotes greater participation in therapy. These types of soft effects may be difficult to research, but as animal-assisted therapy works on the level of the psyche and emotions, its contributions go undetected in many ways.

Animal-assisted therapy has also withstood the test of time. While this practice gained legitimacy in the mainstream therapy community in the early 1990s, in the late 1800s, Florence Nightingale made significant discoveries in this area.[5] It is a little-known fact, but true nonetheless, that the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud himself, incorporated his dog Jofi into some of his psychotherapy sessions with clients.[6] Animal-assisted therapy found its way into the life of some of the most prominent healing workers of the 19th and 20th century, such as Nightingale and Freud, due to its observed benefits and not simply human love for animals.

What Are the Benefits?

Stated most broadly, animal-assisted therapy has been shown to:

  • Promote positive emotions and improve mood
  • Support the development or expression of empathic skills
  • Improve social interaction and communication skills
  • Boost confidence
  • Ease anxiety
  • Reduce feelings associated with low mood, such as loneliness, insecurity, sadness, social isolation, and anger

A 2007 study discussed in Psychology Today provides further illumination of how animal-assisted therapy is particularly effective at improving a recipient’s psychological health.[7] The study focused on equine-assisted therapy and found that those who participated in the clinical trial immediately, and at the six-month follow-up mark, showed significant improvements to their mental health. The benefits were found to be akin to the level that accomplished meditators report. The analogy of animal-assisted therapy to meditation itself speaks to the healing effects animals can have on the psyche.

Positive Results

The 2007 clinical trial participants reported that they were better able to:

  • Live in the present moment, similar to the “Be Here Now” advisement of the Harvard psychology professor turned spirituality guru Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert)
  • Feel less regret and less weighed down with worries and regrets
  • Decrease feelings of resentment towards others and guilt in general
  • Have a more positive future outlook and less fear of the future
  • Feel more independent, in control, and self-supportive
Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial

Animal-assisted therapy and pet ownership also provide physical health benefits. Research in the area of cardiovascular health shows a positive link between having a pet and improved heart function. In 2013, the American Heart Association advised the public that having a pet, particularly a dog, likely reduces the risk, or may even play a causal role, in the reduction of the risk of cardiovascular disease.[8] Further, a 1995 sub-study led by the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial involved 369 participants who had a heart attack (myocardial infarction). At the one-year follow-up mark, the heart attack survivors who owned dogs had a significant increased survival rate (the mortality rate was 4.05 greater for those survivors who did not have a dog). In short, the study showed that dogs provided a survival benefit that could not be explained by other factors, such as the person’s demographics and other psychosocial factors.[9]

Animal-Assisted Therapy for Substance Abuse Recovery

The species of animals that have been incorporated into substance abuse recovery programs vary widely and include but are not limited to dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, llama, rabbits, dolphins, and wolves. A drug rehab center may host therapy animals that travel to the site at an agreed-upon schedule for sessions, or the center may house the animals permanently, such as some equine therapy programs that maintain stables.

As the sessions are therapist-led, the therapist is licensed to handle the particular species of animal that is involved in the animal-assisted therapy. When rehab centers offer animal-assisted therapy, they typically list this service on their official site as well as in brochures. The specific species of animal involved will likely also be discussed. The treatment schedule will include the time and days that are set aside for animal-assisted therapy. Many centers make participation optional.

As canine-therapy and equine-therapy are the two most common types of animal-assisted therapy offered in drug recovery programs, they will be further elaborated upon in this discussion. Although open-water dolphin therapy is only reportedly used in Hawaii, a brief discussion to this approach is made as an example of how far-reaching animal-assisted therapy can be. While it appears that animal-assisted therapy is beneficial overall, the particular type of animal species involved can influence the process and for this reason a closer look at some animals is helpful.

Oxford Treatment Center provides a program that’s structured to include a rich range of experiential therapies in which each patient will take part