Few people will deny the feel-good qualities of a goofy cat video or a picture of a dog and a bunny cuddling. Yet animals have much deeper therapeutic powers than you may find on a routine Youtube or Tumblr search. More and more people are turning to animals to provide treatment for a variety of health concerns, from depression to epilepsy, and the results have been largely positive.
Interested in seeking the help of a MD with a tail? Read on…
How Does It Work?
According to Psychology Today, animal-assisted therapy is “a therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals…into the treatment plan…to enhance and complement the benefits of traditional therapy.” Animal-assisted treatment is typically used in conjunction with (and not as a replacement for) talk therapies. Thus far, it has been associated with positive outcomes for people coping with depression, schizophrenia, addiction, behavioral issues, autism, and myriad other concerns.
As much as we wish we could share a picture of a dog scribbling clinical notes in an office, that’s not quite what happens in an animal-assisted therapy session. That being said, this type of intervention can take a variety of forms, several of which we’ll review here.
Emotional Support and Therapy Animals
Two popular forms of animal-assisted therapy are the use of an “emotional support” or “therapy” animals, which tend to live with or near the humans they’re “treating.” Emotional support and therapy animals are similar: they both provide comfort and socialization to people coping with mental illnesses or living in places where therapeutic interactions may be particularly beneficial, like retirement homes or rehabilitation facilities. However, while almost any creature can be designated a therapy animal, to be considered an emotional support animal, your pet will need a prescription letter from a licensed physician. Since their presence is justified by an official doctor’s note, emotional support animals tend to have more “rights” than therapy animals, such as the right to live in what would otherwise be pet-free housing or to travel alongside their owner in restricted areas.
When picturing a therapy animal, you probably think of a small mammal like a dog or a bunny—but they’re not the only ones making our world a little happier. HenPower, an organization stationed in the UK, has been exploring the benefits of “hengaging” (be warned: their website has a lot of puns) people in elderly care homes with chickens. In addition to caring for the chickens by feeding them and collecting their eggs, individuals in this program are welcome to bond with them via cuddling (though, as a note, you probably shouldn’t try this with your average farm chicken).
It may sound silly, but it’s effective. HenPower has led to both benefits in general health and wellbeing and reductions in loneliness, depression, anxiety, and agitation. Participant Tommy Applby goes so far as to say that while he was initially “lukewarm” about the program, it ultimately “saved [his] life.” He adds, “what I like about the HenPower is that you’re not entertained, you’re involved. You make decisions for yourself and you work as a group. I love to tell everyone how it’s changed my life, about how it’s changing older people’s lives.”
People of all ages stand to benefit from developing animal-human bonds. Sarah Smith, a 22 year old US Marine police officer, finds support from anxiety in her parrot, Zoboomafoo. According to Smith, Zoboomafoo is “very intuitive and [can] tell when my anxiety [is] high or I [am] having a panic attack.” When he senses her distress, he sits on her shoulder, offers “kisses,” whistles at her, and otherwise distracts and comforts her until her heart rate lowers and her anxiety is under control. His presence also boosts her confidence, helping her complete anxiety-inducing tasks like driving in the dark and shopping in crowded stores.
If you’re interested in making your pet an official emotional support animal, check out this handy guide (yes, it’s from Cosmopolitan, but don’t let that dissuade you—their information is good). Note that while many organizations will try to convince you to pay to “certify” your pet as an emotional support animal, this is not necessary. All you should need is a written prescription from your therapist.
Many people turn to equine therapy (working with horses) for its behavioral benefits. If you’ve ever spent time with horses, you might have noticed how good they are at mirroring human attitudes and behavior. Unlike, say, a very friendly dog who may run to greet you no matter how nervous you are, a horse will pick up on your anxiety and reflect it back to you. They may respond to your worry by refusing to come and greet you or to follow your lead.
Seeing how horses respond to our behavior can make us more aware of how we’re interacting with them. We may think we’re acting confident, but if the horse isn’t walking in the direction we tell it to, we should probably reconsider that assumption. Are we subconsciously sending out signals of passivity or discomfort, like a wavering voice or slouched shoulders? How can we alter that so the horse learns to trust our friendliness and authority?
Recognizing how we might be undermining our own efforts to influence or bond with horses can help us improve our interactions not only with animals, but with other people. For these reasons, equine therapy is often used to help with assertiveness, independence, problem-solving, and interpersonal relationships. It has also become popular amongst individuals with brain disorders (including cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, and intracerebral hemorrhage), as it has been demonstrated to improve both motor and balance skills.
You may not find therapy animals writing prescriptions, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the office entirely. Many therapists, including the Viva Center’s own Georgiana Mora, LICSW, choose to bring animals in to strengthen certain sessions.
“Animals can provide a safe, consistent source of support, especially for clients who have had early attachment trauma,” Mora says. “When someone comes in because they have been hurt by someone who should have cared for them, trusting anyone, including a therapist or even themselves, can feel like an impossible obstacle. I am amazed over and over again how the mere presence of a dog can bring a sense of trust in the room.”
Animals don’t have to be specially trained to support clients during their therapy sessions. In fact, Mora often chooses to bring her own pets into the room. “I have two amazing dogs—one of them is particularly sensitive, so if someone is crying or upset, he will just sit quietly next to them and provide a soothing presence.” What more could a person ask for? “Trauma often makes us hyper-alert and deeply anxious, so learning to soothe our nervous systems is a major component of healing. There is something about certain animals that sends a message of calm and safety to the brain in a way that transcends logic or words.”
As in equine therapy, bringing pets into a session can also help us recognize the consequences of our communication styles. Therapist Ellen Winston recalls how bringing her dog into couples therapy sessions helped her clients realize the effects their interactions could be having on their children. She and the couple noted how the dog, Sasha, liked to curl up between them during moments of calm—but would hop up and go to the door when the couple became agitated and began fighting. “We [discussed] that if this is how they interact regularly,” like Sasha, “their children were likely also picking up on their moods and acting out as a result.” We clearly have a lot to learn from the creatures we interact with in terms of what they reveal about both our relationships with ourselves and our relationships with others.
Interested in Learning More?
These are just a handful of the ways that both clinicians and their clients are partnering with animals to improve mental health treatment. To find animal-assisted treatments near you, a quick google or Yelp search should suffice! You’re also free to contact us for any recommendations in the DMV area—just email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, we always welcome tweets of your animal pics, be they therapeutic or just plain adorable. Seriously, please send us pictures—we love them!