Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) – Is it Even Effective?

It’s quite apparent simply by looking at this blog that I am an animal lover. I have personally experienced the emotional support animals can provide to help improve my overall well-being. However, before I feel comfortable moving forward with connecting any individuals/clients/members that I encounter day-to-day as a social worker with therapy animals I want to know if Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is even a proven effective method for the management of psychiatric, substance use, and physical health disorders.

A simple search of recent peer reviewed journals started pouring out evidence based research about the efficacy of AAT to help improve the overall mental and physical health adults, teens, and children in various levels of care. A recent Public Health Nursing article published in 2016 by Molly Allison & Megha Ramaswamy presented a very detailed representation of five AAT studies and outcomes. See chart below.

Five Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) Intervention Studies.
Purpose of study Description of ATT intervention Target health outcome Results Citation
To determine how AAT would affect social behaviors of adult psychiatric inpatients while taking substance abuse education classes. Dogs, rabbits, ferrets, and guinea pigs were introduced to experimental substance abuse education group and were present for participants to either observe or interact with. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis Not Otherwise Specified, or depression Significant differences among participants in the AAT group in the areas of interaction with other patients, smiling and showing pleasure, socialization, helpfulness, and cooperativeness. Marr et al. (2000)
To evaluate if AAT would make Warriors in Transition demonstrate improved moods, lowered stress, improved resilience, lowered levels of fatigue, and improved daily function in conjunction with an Occupational Therapy Life Skills program. Warriors in Transition worked one-on-one with pet therapy team (dog and its handler) after Occupational Therapy Life Skills classes. Warrior in Transition was required to successfully teach dog five commands before doing other dog-related activities (grooming, walking, sitting, and petting) of the Warrior in Transition’s choice. Polytraumatic injuries, traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, depression, burns, and limb amputations Work performance and quality of interaction significantly increased when comparing non-AAT and AAT groups. Beck et al. (2012)
To measure AAT effects on therapeutic alliance between an adult, residential, substance abuse population, and therapist. Therapy dog was incorporated into substance abuse group therapy training, through use of 30 tricks useful to group or individual treatment goals. Substance dependence on alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, Rx opiates, benzodiazepines, hallucinogens, or more than one substance AAT groups revealed significantly more positive opinions of therapeutic alliance when compared to non-AAT groups. Wesley et al. (2009)
To assess three group therapy interventions—No

Dogs, Dogs No Stories, and Dogs with Stories—on reduction in trauma symptoms for child sexual abuse survivors.

Dogs no stories: Therapy dogs were available for interaction before group therapy sessions. Dogs participated in introductory activity, then left group.

Dogs with stories: Same format as Dogs No Stories intervention, but therapeutic stories about the dogs were used to transition to session topics.

Anxiety, depression, anger, PTSD, dissociation, overt dissociation, fantasy dissociation, sexual concerns, sexual preoccupation, and sexual distress Dogs no stories: All subscales showed significant decreases from pre to posttest, except sexual concerns and anger.

Dogs with stories: All subscales showed significant decreases from pre to posttest, with largest decrease in PTSD scale.

Dietz et al. (2012)
To describe a pilot AAT program for female inmates with mental illness and describe effects using anecdotal accounts and observational reports by mental health professionals. Therapy dog was incorporated into group therapy sessions, either used for interaction or as a model for group discussion. Schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, and comorbid substance abuse or dependence Group facilitator, participants, and clinicians reported positive feelings toward AAT program. Participants reported decreases in anxiety and depression, and an increase in motivation to attend group. Mental health professionals reported decreased social isolation and increased prosocial behaviors for participants. Jasperson (2010)

In general, one should not have to search too hard to find evidence based literature if a treatment method is proven to be effective and I did not even have to go past my first page on the search results at the UNR Library database to find an outpouring of recent articles supporting the use of AAT for the management of a variety of medical and psychiatric conditions.

For those interested in a more visual representation click this link: https://youtu.be/cXClmauUTTs    for a memorable video recently showcased on Inside Edition when young Kai meets his service dog for the first time.

 

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Overall, I now feel more comfortable as a clinician moving forward in exploring these services and treatment options further now that I have been able to locate supporting material proving its efficacy .

Additionally I found some supporting literature/books about the subject that may be worth exploring from a clinical perspective and/or for interesting reads.

 

  • Love, Animals, and Miracles: Inspiring True Stories Celebrating the Healing Bond by Dr. Bernie S. Siegel (Author), Cynthia Hurn
  • Animal Assisted Therapy Activities to Motivate and Inspire
  • Animal-Assisted Brief Therapy, Second Edition: A Solution-Focused Approach 2nd Edition
  • Professional Applications of Animal Assisted Interventions: Dogwood Doga (Second Edition) by Melissa Y Winkle OTR/L (Author)

 

References:
Allison, M. and Ramaswamy, M. (2016), Adapting Animal-Assisted Therapy Trials to Prison-Based Animal Programs. Public Health Nurs, 33: 472–480. doi:10.1111/phn.12276
Beck, C. E., Gonzales, F., Sells, C. H., Jones, C., Reer, T., Wasilewski, S., et al. (2012). The effects of animal-assisted therapy on wounded warriors in an occupational therapy life skills program. U.S. Army Medical Department Journal, 3845.
Dietz, T. J., Davis, D., & Pennings, J. (2012). Evaluating animal-assisted therapy in group treatment for child sexual abuse. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 21(6), 665683.
Jasperson, R. A. (2010). Animal-assisted therapy with female inmates with mental illness: A case example from a pilot program. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 49(6), 417433.
Marr, C. A., French, L., Thompson, D., Drum, L., Greening, G., Mormon, J., et al. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy in psychiatric rehabilitation. Anthrozoös, 13(1), 4347.
Wesley, M. C., Minatrea, N. B., & Watson, J. C. (2009). Animal-assisted therapy in the treatment of substance dependence. Anthrozoös, 22(2), 137148.

5 comments

  1. What a fascinating post and full of interesting references. Nice surprise as I did not expect to see that. My way of thanking you for your recent decision to follow Learning from Dogs!

    Like

  2. As half of a pet therapy team at a local hospital, I can assure you from personal experience that animal assisted therapy absolutely works! Sam and I were one visiting a patient who had sky high blood pressure. Five minutes of petting Sam and his pressure was very close to normal! We’ve started visiting the out-patient mental health facility on the hospital campus recently and all the patients who enjoy pets seem to love our visits. Some cry tears of joys. My boy just wags his tail and looks deeply in their eyes connecting with them deeply. It’s a beautiful thing. And thank you for swinging by the Ranch and for the follow. We ❤︎ visitors especially those who share our belief that pet therapy helps everyone on both sides of the leash.

    Like

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