What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?
Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT for short) involves using animals therapeutically during a patient’s therapy session. One of the most commonly known types of AAT is hippotherapy or therapeutic horseback riding, but any animal that has been trained properly can be used in AAT. The animals can be used in a variety of ways to promote physical, social, and emotional development in children and adults. Below is a summary of how working with animals during therapy may benefit a patient!
· Calming effects: studies have proven that blood pressure and heart rate decrease when a person strokes an animal.
· Sensory benefits: many children with developmental disabilities have impaired sensory systems. This means that sensations that feel normal to you and I may feel very abnormal to them. Animals have a variety of textures available on their bodies that can be used in therapy-wet noses, furry backs, rough paws, etc.
· Emotional benefits: animals are non-judgmental. A child with speech impairment can talk to an animal without being afraid of sounding “different” or being made fun of. Children who have suffered abuse or who are having a difficult time with emotions can also tell their problems to an animal without fear of being judged.
· Social benefits: animals enjoy socializing and being around people. Children who have difficulty playing and socializing with other children can learn by watching the animals interact with other people. We also use the animals in therapy to promote positive behavior such as taking turns and sharing.
· Functional skills: animals, like humans, need to eat, drink, use the restroom, and be groomed. They also need physical activity and exercise like humans do! We work on many of those same skills with our patients, so using the animals to practice those skills is a fun way to reinforce what we are working on in therapy. The patients can feed the animals either by hand or with utensils, brush the animals, walk, run and jump with the animals, and even play catch! Sometimes, we can even dress the animals and work on special tricks if the animal has been trained to do so!
At MedCare, we partner with Faithful Paws to provide animal-assisted therapy to our patients in our clinics. Faithful Paws is a volunteer organization which is sponsored by the Bellaire United Methodist Church. The Faithful Paws volunteers and their pets have gone through specialized training to ensure that the animals and our patients are safe at all times during the sessions.
There are many books and research articles that have been written to show how the interactions between a patient and an animal can be very beneficial for the patient. There are also several foundations that specialize in animal-assisted therapy. The following is just a brief list of some references you can check out if you’d like more information on animal assisted therapy!
Animal Assisted Therapy: Activities to Motivate and Inspire
Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy
Animal-Assisted Interventions for Individuals with Autism
101 Creative Ideas for Animal Assisted Therapy
Faithful Paws Website