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Animal-Assisted Therapy: Truth or Fiction?


Animal-assisted therapy is growing in popularity in the medical and therapy communities. Not surprisingly, spending time with lovable dogs or horses is also a favorite treatment program for patients. Officially referred to as AAT, this method of treatment can be effective in helping adults with conditions ranging from PTSD to dementia to schizophrenia. With the recent rise in awareness of this new type of therapy, many of our patients want to know: is this a legitimate type of therapy, and will it really help?

Not Just for Dogs: Horses, Birds, and Cats

The majority of research on animal-assisted therapy has been with dogs and horses, but AAT animals can be cats, birds, and many other types of animals. AAT is not intended to be an exclusive therapy for any mental health condition. Instead, it is seen as a supporting treatment that can be used with any other type of cognitive or behavioral therapy your psychologist recommends. Pairing a loving canine with someone suffering from mental health issues has been shown to provide social, physical, and emotional benefits. Some of these benefits come because spending time with a dog is shown to raise a person’s levels of endorphins, which trigger positive feelings and increased tolerance to pain and stress.

Research over the past 20 years has shown that animal-assisted therapy can indeed be effective as a supporting treatment for many conditions, although its usefulness may depend partially on the patient and the patient’s interest and connection to animals. One of the benefits in pairing animals like dogs or horses with individuals with emotional and mental health issues is that animals are non-judgmental and can provide a constant source of emotional and even physical support. Dogs can be trained to help injured veterans in and out of bed or lend emotional support while a patient is in a therapy session. Having a dog in the home can be helpful for military personnel with PTSD and can decrease symptoms.

Research shows that individuals speak more freely to their therapists while simultaneously interacting with a well-trained AAT dog. However, this doesn’t mean you should run out and get a fluffy puppy for your son who’s back from Iraq with PTSD. The daily demands of caring for a pet are often too great for individuals with significant emotional or psychological issues, and that’s why pet therapy programs are so valuable. Short term, ongoing visits with a loving dog can give some of the same benefits that owning a supportive pet can lend.

Here are some of the conditions that have been shown to respond well to animal therapy.

·       PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including PTSD in military personnel)

  • ·       Autism
  • ·       Dementia and related memory loss conditions
  • ·       Alcohol and drug addiction
  • ·       Schizophrenia
  • ·       Depression
  • ·       Chronic pain






Remember, Animal-assisted therapy is not recommended as the primary therapy for any of the above conditions, but is intended to be used as a supporting therapy in conjunction with other therapies and the advice of your mental health provider. If you’re interested in learning more about incorporating Animal-assisted therapy into your treatment plan, or the treatment plan of a family member, please talk to your doctor or mental health provider at Dallas Behavioral. There are many local animal-assisted therapy programs available in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, with many aimed at helping military personnel, the elderly, and children. Animal-assisted therapy may be the extra drop of love and acceptance your loved one needs to heal from past trauma and find a more meaningful life.