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Animal Assisted Therapy: When those four-legged friends become your healers

Animal-assisted therapy is a complementary therapy that includes animals for the treatment of patients suffering from psychological problems. © Shutterstock

While a new research has revealedthat animal-assisted therapy can foster ability to handle social interaction and emotional involvement in patients with brain injury, here we tell you everything you need to know about this new treatment option.

Of late, we are being told by a growing body of research that there are more reasons to love our pets than we know about. According to those studies, our four-legged friends can be therapeutic to our physical and mental health. Now, a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports says that animal assisted therapy (AAT) can be helpful in improving the social behavior of patients affected with brain injuries. Patients with brain injury develop problems in their social behaviors leading to isolation, breakdown, and awkwardness. They also face issues in interacting socially, and troubles with relationships. According to the study team, animal-assisted therapy encourages the development of social competence, increased emotional involvement, and ability to handle social interaction. The researchers explain that animals actually act as stimuli for these patients and help them engage positively and actively in therapeutic activities.

During the study, the scientists chose 19 adult brain injury patients. They were given both AAT sessions and conventional therapy sessions. After each session (around 200 in total), their social behaviour was recorded and analyzed. The research results showed that post AAT sessions, the study participants had more positive emotions compared to conventional therapies. It was noticed that after animal assisted therapy, the patients were actively communicating both verbally and non-verbally. Also, they were energetically participating in the therapy when an animal was there with them.

HISTORY OF ANIMAL ASSISTED THERAPY

Florence Nightingale first recognized that animals can help reduce anxiety in psychiatric patients and children. She explored the potential of the relationship between animals and humans in the 1800s, says a report published in the journal Annals of Long-Term Care. Then, in 1930, Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud became the talk of the town when he started bringing his dogs to therapy sessions. He used to include his two dogs named Chow Chow and Jofi, in his counseling sessions. He used to believe that dogs have a calming effect over humans and they can easily understand the emotional state and character of a person. These two dogs were able to assess the moods of the patients. During therapy sessions, they would lie close to the patients if they seemed to be calm. However, if they used to be anxious, the dogs used to maintain a distance. Also, one of these dogs, Jofi knew the exact time when Freud should end the session. He had an internal body clock that used to tell him when exactly 50 minutes are over.

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It was actually after 1950 that animal-assisted therapy came into use properly. In the 60s, Dr. Boris Levinson, a clinical psychologist, documented his experiences with his dog named, Jingles who helped in the therapy of seriously ill patients. Finally, in the 80s, the initiative to certify animals for therapy was taken. Currently, animal therapy has gained worldwide acceptance and is evolving as part of mainstream psychological therapy.

WHAT IS AAT?

Animal-assisted therapy is a complementary therapy that includes animals like dogs, cats and horses, for the treatment of patients suffering from psychological problems. Dogs are the most popular choice for therapy, horses being second in preference. Horses respond very well to non-verbal communications. Animals used in assisted-animal therapy are properly trained for the therapy. They live with the counsellors and are trained to interact or behave with patients, based on the patients' mood or state of mind. While therapy with dogs and cats involve playing with them, in case of horses, horse riding is one of the ways of interaction.

By lending emotional support, AAT improves the benefits of traditional therapy on a patient. Animals can potentially give you a sense of security, calmness, and comfort. Being with them can easily divert your attention from a stressful situation and towards something that you like. Creating a bond with animals can stabilize emotion, foster a sense of trust and self-worth. Also, it can your improve socializing skills, communication and self-regulation.

Generally, people with autism, depression, addiction, and schizophrenia are considered good candidates for AAT. However, if the patient is suffering from any of these conditions and is also allergic or is scared of animals, he shouldn't be recommended this therapy.

BENEFITS OF AAT

As already mentioned, animal assisted therapy comes with a plethora of benefits. Whether you go for AAT from a trained professional, or start spending time with a pet, the benefits remain the same. Here, we tell you exactly how animals heal you.

Stimulates positive communication

[caption id="attachment_660690" align="alignnone" width="655"]Social AAT animals boosts your emotional stability. Shutterstock[/caption]

Animals reduce your loneliness, give you total freedom to act out your wishes freely. Thus, they improve your behavior during social interactions. They give you an environment of unconditional acceptance which boosts your emotional stability and increases confidence.

Brings down blood pressure

[caption id="attachment_660694" align="alignnone" width="655"]High-blood-pressure-ginger-hazards-1 Interacting with animals calms your mind. Shutterstock[/caption]

There are reams of research that associate animals with reduced blood pressure levels. High BP is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases as well. Interacting with them calms your mind and thus plays a significant role in lowering risk of heart related problems. Also, pet therapy helps you live longer as it staves off various problems associated with death.

Reduces stress and anxiety levels

[caption id="attachment_660695" align="alignnone" width="655"]anxiety-1-1 Pets can help patients with anxiety and stress to express conveniently without any inhibition. Shutterstock[/caption]

Endorphins are known as happy hormones. Studies reveal that their secretion increases when you spend time with a pet. This leads to stress reduction and decreased anxiety levels. People with dementia and other kinds of neurological or psychological disorder generally feel stressed and anxious due to their inability to communicate. Pets can help them to express conveniently without any inhibition, increasing their confidence. This goes a long way in not only alleviating stress but also boosting communication.

Enhances self esteem

[caption id="attachment_660696" align="alignnone" width="655"]anxiety-1-1 Animals add a sense of purpose to the lives of low self-esteem people. Shutterstock[/caption]

Low self-esteem or confidence is seen in people who nurture a feeling of inadequacy in them owing to their circumstances. The circumstances could be driven by their physical, social or psychological condition. Essentially, sitting at home and not doing anything productive can make anyone feel low. Animals add a sense of purpose to their lives and help them come out of their shell and finally gain back their self-esteem.

Improves immune system

[caption id="attachment_660697" align="alignnone" width="655"]immunity AAT animals can improve your immune system by increasing the production of salivary immunoglobulin A. Shutterstock[/caption]

A growing body of research has revealed that stroking your pet for few minutes can increase the production of salivary immunoglobulin A (IgA) in your body. This indicates that your immune system is improving.

Treats depression

[caption id="attachment_660698" align="alignnone" width="655"]depression-1 Petting an animal triggers flow of happy hormones that help reduce depressive symptoms. Shutterstock[/caption]

Feeling of isolation is one of the causes of depression and this is what pet therapy reduces. Keeping a pet can make you lively and socially active. Offering you a sense of comfort and reassurance, pets slowly push you towards social contacts. Cuddling a dog or cat gives a soothing experience. They never let you feel alone. This is because petting an animal triggers flow of happy hormones.

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