Animal-Assisted Therapy for health

Did You Know… spending time with an animal might heal your health problems more effectively than drugs?

A dog may be more than a best friend—a dog may be a real answer to your health issues.  When Dr. Boris Levinson, an American child psychologist, first proposed animal-assisted therapy (AAT) or pet therapy in 1961 to the American Psychological Association (APA), his colleagues doubted its value.  But when Levinson conducted a survey a decade later, 16% of participating psychologists used companion animals in therapy sessions.

Put simply, AAT is the idea that animals can help humans manage or recover from certain medical conditions, and its applications go far beyond the realm of mental health.  The list of the issues AAT can be used to treat includes chronic heart failure… autism… post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)… schizophrenia…and cancer.  Recent research indicates AAT may be able to replace—or at least substantially reduce—the use of certain drug treatments that come with undesirable side effects.

Can Animal-Assisted Therapy Reduce Drug Use? 

A 2009 study from Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, showed that AAT could cut the need for pain medication for adults recovering from total joint-replacement surgery by 50 percent.  Julia Havey, RN, who presented the data at the first Human Animal Interaction Conference, believes the study supports expanding the use of pet therapy in recovery.

Other medical professionals concur.  Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, believes so firmly in the health benefits of pets that he includes the names of patients’ animals in their medical histories.  “A pet is a medication without side effects that has so many benefits,” Creagan says.  “I can’t always explain it myself, but for years now I’ve seen how instances of having a pet is like an effective drug.  It really does help people.”  Mary Craig, veterinarian and CEO of Pet Partners, a non-profit provider of AAT, says: “It’s easy for your volunteers involved in animal assisted activities to see and understand the benefits.”

The challenge is proving those benefits.  “There is a growing body of research, but much of it is still qualitative, not quantitative,” says Chris Patella, of Animal Assisted Therapy Services.  Doctors enmeshed in Western concepts of medicine tend to overlook AAT. In order for it to be established as a viable intervention in the eyes of those individuals, more research is needed.

How You Can Prove Animal-Assisted Therapy’s Value Yourself 

In the meantime, there’s no reason you can’t use AAT to treat yourself.  Some forms of AAT, such as equine therapy, are centered on caring for animals on a regular basis.  Equine therapy can also involve riding the horses, which has been shown to improve strength… flexibility… and balance.

Although dogs may be the best-known service animals, AAT can include just about every kind of critter you can think of, for instance…

  • Cats
  • Hedgehogs
  • Rabbits
  • Skunks
  • Snakes
  • Spider

     Yes, you read that last one correctly—even spiders!  An AAT practice in the United Kingdom uses a tarantula called Fluffy as a treatment approach for individuals with autism!

While scientists work to pin down how AAT works, and document its effectiveness numerically, you can test it out on your own quite simply by spending time with an animal of your choosing, and seeing how it effects your health. Odds are, it will be for the better.

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