Liam Cross, Ph.D., and Gray Atherton, Ph.D.

Creating Connection

My Furry Therapist

How animals can improve therapeutic outcomes.

Posted Jul 20, 2020

Pets are man’s best friend, but can they also be the best medicine? Research suggests that pets can be an important aspect of therapy for those who need help the most.

Ekaterina Brusnika for Shutterstock
Source: Ekaterina Brusnika for Shutterstock

The Delta Society, a leading non-profit organization committed to furthering animal-assisted programming, defines animal-assisted interventions (AAI) more broadly as "various procedures that are goal-directed and target the specific aspects (developmental, therapeutic, emotional, behavioral) of individual or groups of people involved in working with trained animals," and animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as "goal-directed interventions designed to promote improvement in physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive functioning of the person(s) involved and in which a specially trained animal-handler team is an integral part of the treatment process."

This definition, therefore, excludes service animals—for instance, seeing-eye dogs—as these animals are less therapeutic and instead allow a person with disabilities the same capabilities as others. Furthermore, this definition makes it clear that AAIs must have measurable goals and be delivered in coordination with a trained professional.

Monkey Business Images for Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images for Shutterstock

AAIs have existed for decades in psychiatry. A well-known child psychiatrist, Levinson, often included his dog Jingles in sessions with patients. Corson et al. (1977) introduced pets into a psychiatric ward, noting that, "It led to extensive positive social interactions, not only on the part of the patient being treated but also on the part of the other patients. It improved staff-patient interactions. The pet seemed to add a great deal to the development of a humanizing atmosphere on the ward." (p. 61).

Since then, animals have been used in therapeutic interventions for many different clinical populations with reported success.

Schizophrenia is a mental health condition in which individuals experience, among other challenges, disordered communication and reduced social functioning, and it is often coupled with extended hospital stays, contributing to social isolation. Research on AAIs for this group is promising. Barak et al. (2001) found that compared to a control group, adults with schizophrenia in a long-term patient facility showed increased social functioning after a six-month period, during which they interacted with a dog for three hours once a week. Nathans-Barel et al. (2005) found that anhedonia or the loss of pleasure, often experienced by schizophrenic patients, significantly decreased following weekly animal-focused activities, compared to those in the control group.

Heder Zambrano for Shutterstock
Source: Heder Zambrano for Shutterstock

As expressed by leading animal behaviourist and autistic researcher Temple Grandin, "animals make us human." Autistic people have been shown to struggle with social situations that require a nuanced understanding of communication, including reading between the lines and understanding intentions. Research suggests this does not mean that they are not interested in socializing, but rather that cognitive differences may make such experiences difficult and can lead to social rejection.

Having social experiences with animals, however, has been shown to be an effective therapeutic tool to improve social outcomes for those with the condition. Gabriels et al. (2015) for instance found that autistic children who completed a 10-week equine therapy program showed significantly improved social functioning, compared to control participants. O'Haire et al. (2015) assessed stress levels in autistic children during four activities: silent reading, reading out loud, free play with peers, and free play with peers in the presence of guinea pigs. Findings showed heightened stress in all conditions except for the last, suggesting that animals can act as a "social buffer."

Why do animals have these effects? There are several theories that may explain in part the benefits of animal contact during psychological interventions (Kruger & Serpell, 2010). One is that animals may reduce anxiety through biophilia, or an attraction to other living organisms that stems from the evolutionary advantages of a human's having knowledge of environmental cues. Another is that animals act as social lubricants, allowing for the animal to be the topic of conversation between the patient and practitioner, or during peer interactions.

Sakura Image Inc for Shutterstock
Source: Sakura Image Inc for Shutterstock

At present, research suggests that introducing animals into therapy, or engaging with animals during a therapeutic program, can be a fruitful pathway towards improved mental health. The next time you feel anxious, or need a social buffer, think of your pet or the animals you see in nature as a friendly counselor allowing you to connect with your emotions in new ways.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Barak, Y., Savorai, O., Mavashev, S., & Beni, A. (2001). Animal-assisted therapy for elderly schizophrenic patients: A one-year controlled trial. The American journal of geriatric psychiatry, 9(4), 439-442.

Corson, S. A., Arnold, L. E., Gwynne, P. H., & Corson, E. O. L. (1977). Pet dogs as nonverbal communication links in hospital psychiatry. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 18(1), 61-72.

Gabriels, R. L., Pan, Z., Dechant, B., Agnew, J. A., Brim, N., & Mesibov, G. (2015). Randomized controlled trial of therapeutic horseback riding in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 54(7), 541-549.

Kruger, K. A., & Serpell, J. A. (2010). Animal-assisted interventions in mental health: Definitions and theoretical foundations. Handbook on animal-assisted therapy, Elsevier: 33-48.

Nathans-Barel, I., Feldman, P., Berger, B., Modai, I., & Silver, H. (2005). Animal-assisted therapy ameliorates anhedonia in schizophrenia patients: A controlled pilot study. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 74(1), 31-35.

O'Haire, M. E., McKenzie, S. J., Beck, A. M., & Slaughter, V. (2015). Animals may act as social buffers: Skin conductance arousal in children with autism spectrum disorder in a social context. Developmental psychobiology, 57(5), 584-595