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Do Animal-Assisted Interventions Work, and For Whom?

A The Eminents interview with Aubrey Fine and David Williams

Marlies Kloet, CC 3.0
Source: Marlies Kloet, CC 3.0

Most people, especially animal lovers, believe that animals can heal us.

But what does more rigorous analysis suggest? And where might animal-assisted interventions (AAI) be of greatest value?

Today’s The Eminents interview merges the answers of Aubrey Fine, editor of Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy (4th edition) and winner of California State University’s Wang Award for outstanding professor and David Williams, a Harvard MD who is Chief Medical Officer of Pet Partners, a national organization that focuses on animal-assisted therapy.

MARTY NEMKO: Why do you prefer the term animal-assisted intervention rather than animal-assisted therapy or pet therapy?

AUBREY FINE & DAVID WILLIAMS: Because animals can be used in so many ways.

They’re, of course, used for stress reduction. For example, dogs may be brought in to help victims of a natural disaster, a severely ill patient, to enhance an inmate’s sense of kindness, and even for overanxious college students at exam time.

Less widely known, an animal specialist might work with a medical specialist, for example, a physical therapist. They might use pet-caring activities such as dog brushing as an emotionally rewarding tool for helping a stroke patient regain function.

Even less widely known, animals are being used in education—for example, having children practice reading by reading aloud to an animal.That's less threatening than reading to an adult or even a child. And of course, animals have long been used in classrooms to teach empathy and responsibility, for example, the class hamster.

MN: What is the evidence for AAI's efficacy?

AF/DW: Proving efficacy for any psychological intervention is difficult. That’s true for animal-assisted interventions. Hal Herzog in Psychology Today described the reasons, for example, the difficulty of obtaining a valid non-treatment control group and of doing long-term follow-up studies. 

But there is evidence. Nimer and Lundahl selected the 47 methodologically soundest of 250 studies of animal-assisted therapy's efficacy. It then subjected the 47 to meta-analysis and concluded that animal-assisted therapy was associated with moderate effect sizes in improving outcomes autism symptoms, medical difficulties, behavioral problems, and emotional well-being. University of Missouri researchers found that an animal-assisted dog-walking program increased exercise and decreased weight. Friedman et al, found that patients that underwent cardiac surgery who had a dog were far less likely to suffer recurrence or early death. Virginia Commonwealth University research and a study from the University of Rostock, Germany found that interacting with a warm-hearted companion animal also appears to lower stress hormones such as cortisol, as well as increasing levels of oxytocin, the chemical that aids in parent/child bonding. It appears that the puppy love we feel is not only magical but biological.

In recent years, NIH has funded randomized control studies, which should provide more solid data on animal-assisted interventions' efficacy.

MN: Is there a particular kind of person that benefits most from animal-assisted therapy?

AF/DW: The literature suggests that the elderly, people with depression or PTSD, and children with cancer, autism, or ADHD seem to benefit significantly. Not surprisingly, people with diagnosed anxiety often relax in the presence of a calm animal and learn to use the animal as a way to calm down.

MN: Is animal-assisted intervention beneficial to incarcerated people, gang members, etc.?

AF/DW: While again, the research literature lacks methodological rigor, the evidence suggests that living with animals, usually dogs, provides some inmates with a sense of purpose and a chance to unearth their often dormant compassion and warmth, keys to a non-violent life. The Joseph Harp Correctional Center, a medium-security prison found that pairing depressed inmates with dogs reduced depression. Fournier, Geller and Fortney found it also increases inmates' social sensitivity. E.O. Strimple reports preliminary success in pairing inmates with wild horses.

MN: Can animal-assisted therapy principles be applied to more normal people, for example, those simply wanting to relieve daily stress?

AF/DW: Absolutely! Animals benefit normal people every day by engaging them in increased exercise, decreasing their stress hormones, and increasing their sense of well-being. For example, SUNY Buffalo research has shown that having a pet lowers blood pressure and the risk of heart disease. USC research found that pet ownership increases our emotional bonds not just with our pets but with those around us. A study by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative estimated an $11.7 billion saving to the health care system.

A PhD dissertation by Imika Narayan found that animal-assisted interventions help children develop character and empathy. So dogs are now being used in schools to combat bullying and with children in homes with domestic violence.

MN: You are both deeply involved in Pet Partners. Tell me about that.

AF/DW: Today almost 14,000 Pet Partners therapy practitioners operate across the nation, and in the past year alone, Pet Partners made more than a million visits to people in need.

A Pet Partners animal handler must complete training as well as a practical evaluation with their pet. Our handlers are covered by a liability insurance policy and have access to continuing education resources and required recertification to ensure safe and effective therapy animal visits.

MN: How likely it is I could make a sustainable living as an animal-assisted therapist?

AF/DW: Animal-assisted therapy should be looked on as a complementary activity, not as a primary source of income. Your primary income might be as a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, physical therapist, occupational therapist, nurse, social worker, or educator.

MN: What's one other thing you'd like to tell the readers?

AF/DW: That the popular press and social media have sensationalized the human/animal connection's power. Many people tend to think that animal-assisted therapy is a series of “aha!!” moments. Rather, the benefits of animal-assisted interventions usually are the sum of more modest experiences.

MN: What's next for the two of you?

AF/DW: We both want to better understand the impact of animal-assisted therapy on our clients and how it affects animals physically and psychologically. As ambassadors for the field, we want people to know that animal-assisted therapy is a valuable, low-risk tool but not a magic pill. We look forward to ever greater involvement with Pet Partners to help us make those goals a reality. 

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko