April 21, 2021

Animals can assist in a variety of ways to help individuals, caregivers achieve clinical goals

The therapeutic qualities of animals and animal interactions are beginning to be accepted in a much wider scope and to some people may seem like common knowledge. Thanks to this and a growing base of empirical research, terminology and categories of applications for animal interactions can be overwhelming and confusing. Amanda Hathcock, employee assistance counselor at the Center for Healthy Living, offers a breakdown of some different terms and applications and how to use what animals can teach us in daily life (even those who don’t have direct access to a pet or other animal). 

“Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is treatment provided by a credentialed provider with animal interaction deliberately included in the treatment plan,” Hathcock says. “This could look like a dog working with a physical therapist and motivates patients to stretch and strengthen arm muscles by fetching the ball they throw. It could be a horse providing a riding and social experience with a mental health counselor and exemplifies emotion regulation for patients processing traumatic experiences. Developmental disorders, sensory disorders, memory and geriatric care are additional example settings where credentialed providers may use animals to help achieve clinical goals.” 

Animal-assisted therapy also supports the behavioral health pillar of the Healthy Boiler Program.

According to Hathcock, AAT differs from:

  • Pet ownership: Casual mutual (hopefully pleasant) cohabitation between owner and pet.
  • Animal-assisted activities: A nonclinical activity with animals present like a relaxation room full of puppies, a dog in the lounge at a nursing home, a class pet, etc.
  • Emotional support animals: Animals that have been prescribed as part of a treatment plan to be carried out when the credentialed provider is not present.
  • Service animal: An animal that is trained to do a specific service or action for a specific person who, without that animal and their service, would experience severe hardship.

“Pet ownership and unstructured interaction with animals has been associated with reduced blood pressure, improved cardiac recovery, stress buffering (if present at time of stressor) and biochemical attachment and bonding,” Hathcock says. “Research supports that people’s attention is naturally attracted to animals and that interacting with animals can exemplify healthy companionship and relationships. Pet ownership directly correlates with increased social interactions and increased physical activity.”

Despite all of these natural benefits, it is important for individuals to consider their personal feelings about animals and how to create a space and relationship that is mutually beneficial if they choose to have a pet. Housing needs for animals and human housing restrictions, financial responsibilities, time, energy and training are all considerations to account for before bringing an animal into a home. 

If pet ownership is not the right route, other considerations for ways to interact with animals with minimal personal obligation include:

  • Volunteering at humane societies and animal rescues (make sure to check online about COVID sign-up procedures).
  • Fostering: Giving a safe, loving space to an animal temporarily until a forever home can be found and with limited financial responsibility.
  • Pet sitting.
  • Taking horseback riding lessons.
  • Visiting a cat lounge.
  • Watching for public activities like stress-free zones and adopt-a-thons.

“Even if spending time with animals is not of high importance, there are self-care practices that individuals can learn about and are reinforced by pet research,” Hathcock says.

Hathcock offers the following possibilities:

  • Self-hug (physical contact, any cross-body motion).
  • Short meaningful stress reprieves.
  • Physical activity.
  • Adopting a pet is obviously a choice. Are there other relationships in your life you would choose to adopt? Then take steps to build that communication. Are there relationships in your life you would not adopt if you had the choice? Then set boundaries and take steps to build a healthy distance.

“Animals can be mentally and emotionally rewarding in many ways. Consider asking your care provider about opportunities for animal-assisted therapy,” Hathcock says.

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