What Is Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?

Apr 26,2022


About 10% of the total population in the world is reported to suffer from a mental health disorder as this comprehensive article affirms. Often these problems go unnoticed by our family and community. However, this sphere of health problems includes substance abuse, alcohol abuse, depression, PTSD, and anxiety which can destroy a person’s life entirely if you do not seek help. So where can you find help?

There are various types of mental health treatment facilities like psychiatric hospitals, dedicated inpatient units at hospitals, day treatment mental health facilities, retirement homes, veteran care facilities, and residential mental health facilities. About 8.4% of mental health facilities in the United States are residential facilities for adults and about 7.5% are residential facilities for children's mental illness treatment needs. Only about 6.2% of mental health facilities are full psychiatric hospitals and more than half of these are privately owned.

What Treatment Is Available?

There are seven major therapies that are employed by mental health professionals to help people with mental disorders. Depending on the severity of your condition, there may be few or many options you could explore so you should talk to your doctor if you believe that you are in need of help.

1. Counseling —  is a type of talking therapy that can help you cope with a variety of emotional issues. This is usually employed when a person is coping with depression, anxiety, challenging life events, or an eating disorder.

2. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) — this type of therapy is used to address panic attacks, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A specially trained mental health professional can help you change the way you think about your problems and help you resolve issues you are facing presently.

3. Existential therapy — is a form of psychotherapy that can help you overcome inner conflict and concerns. This is especially helpful for people struggling with life problems, feelings of meaninglessness, responsibility, and death.

4. Family therapy — this type of therapy focuses on the family as a unit and investigates the relationships in a given family. This treatment is useful as it helps people understand each other better and overcome challenges as a unit.

5. Art therapy — uses the creative process of making art to aid in building communication skills and better control over your emotions.

6. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy — is specially developed to help people who struggle with traumatic experiences. EMDR involves your therapist asking you to think about the traumatic experience while following the movement of your therapist’s finger, side to side, with your eyes.

7. Hypnotherapy — involves the use of hypnosis to treat conditions or simply change habits. Hypnosis is used to induce a deep state of relaxation during which you work towards your agreed goal with your therapist. Hypnotherapy doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be useful in some cases and has proven results.

Animals Can Help Therapists Address Mental Health Problems

Animal-assisted therapy is a relatively new treatment that has been in development since 1990 and has gained a lot of popularity. This type of therapy is employed at hospitals, schools, nursing homes, retirement homes, psychiatric hospitals, and other medical facilities. It involves a person spending time with a trained therapy pet under the guidance of a therapist. All therapy animals are temperament tested, receive full veterinary screening, and have mastered basic obedience.

In a hospital setting, animal-assisted therapy can help patients improve their range of motion, strength, endurance, balance, and mobility, and overcome mental health problems. In a school setting, this type of therapy is used to help students overcome anxiety, and stress, and build social skills. Most programs use only dogs, but some facilities may use cats, horses, and domesticated birds too.

Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work?

NAMI has reported that animal-assisted therapy helps people that cope with cancer and heart diseases as well as mental health problems. This type of therapy has been recommended in cases where people had to be admitted to a mental health institution or secluded in a compulsory manner. Cynthia Kay Chandler from the University of North Texas has published a compelling work on animal-assisted therapy and its many advantages. She supports the idea of using dogs, cats, horses, birds, farm animals, rabbits and other small animals, and dolphins. There is a lot of research that shows animal-assisted therapy helps reduce stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and aldosterone and increases the production of “happy” hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins. Nancy Richerson has investigated the “Effects of animal-assisted therapy on agitated behaviors and social interactions of older adults with dementia” in one of her works. Her publication provides empirical data that suggests the presence of a dog reduces aggression and agitation and promotes social behavior in people with dementia. As mentioned earlier, the field is relatively young, and more studies are needed to investigate the long-term effectiveness of this type of therapy.