Animal-assisted therapy involves interaction with animals to help treat health issues. This can include depression.
The idea of using animals in a therapeutic way goes back centuries. Historical accounts include using animals to improve the morale or engage the attention of the elderly and helping people with disabilities improve skills.
How Animal-Assisted Therapy Works
Interacting with an animal—whether playing with it, caring for it, or simply petting it—is believed to have several positive effects on a person, from creating a sense of calm to providing a sense of purpose. The animal involved can be anything; common therapy animals include cats, dogs, horses, birds, and rabbits.
Studies have shown that petting an animal can cause a depression patient’s brain to release chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals are designed to counteract the body’s reaction to pain by causing a sense of pleasure or well-being.
The Delta Society, an organization that supports the use of therapy animals, describes two kinds of therapeutic interactions that can be conducted with animals: animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapies. The difference is in the structure of the interaction.
- Activity sessions usually involve meet and greets with a number of patients and animals that are unstructured and free from detailed goals.
- Therapy sessions are more formal and usually include set therapeutic goals for the patients.
Animal-assisted therapy does not yet have a lot of clinical evidence backing its usefulness, but there is a large body of anecdotal evidence.
Pros of Animal-Assisted Therapy
According to the Delta Society, benefits of animal-assisted therapy include the following:
- drawing attention to the animal and away from problems
- encouraging empathy and/or nurturing skills in the participant
- instilling a feeling of acceptance or fulfillment in the participant
- causing a calming effect in the participant
Cons of Animal-Assisted Therapy
The risks of animal-assisted therapy are the same as those of handling or being around animals—the potential for attack and allergic reaction. The animals and their handlers should both be trained for activity/therapy scenarios.
What the Expert Says
“Some of the problems associated with depression are social withdrawal and feelings of loneliness,” says Steve G. Kopp, a licensed mental health counselor and marriage and family therapist with Genesis Health Systems. “Animal-assisted therapy gives a person a feeling of companionship and acceptance.”
Animal therapy can have profound effects, Kopp says. When patients soothe animals they are interacting with, they often end up soothing themselves.