What is it?
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) involves using trained animals to help people cope with or recover from illnesses. Specific goals of treatment are set before therapy starts. Animals are selected for AAT based on their friendliness and companionship.
AAT is used for anxiety. It is also used for pain, muscle strength, dementia, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and many other conditions, but there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses.
Possibly Effective for …
- Anxiety. Most research shows that a single session of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) reduces anxiety in adults and children. Dogs are the most common animal used in AAT for anxiety. Individual sessions of AAT seems to be more beneficial than group sessions. But AAT might not work better than other activities that also calm anxiety. It’s also unknown if AAT works well when used over several weeks.
Insufficient Evidence to Make a Determination for …
- Autism. A few small studies show that AAT over 3-6 months might help children with autism. Most studies use dogs or horses. But since studies have looked at so many different symptoms, it’s difficult to know what type of AAT is best and which children are most likely to benefit.
- Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Early research shows that twice weekly animal-assisted therapy using a dog improves attention and hyperactivity in children with ADHD according to their parents’ assessment. Horse therapy might also help to reduce symptoms. Some research shows that it’s as effective as common medications. Most of the children in these studies were not using standard medicine for ADHD. So, it’s unknown if AAT helps children who are already taking medication for ADHD.
- Cerebral palsy. Some early research shows that animal-assisted therapy that involves horseback riding might improve muscle strength in children with cerebral palsy. It seems to work best in children with the mildest symptoms before therapy.
- Diseases, such as Alzheimer disease, that interfere with thinking (dementia). AAT with a dog might have help with behavior and mood in people with dementia. But it doesn’t seem to help people perform activities better or have better memory.
- Depression. It’s unclear if animal-assisted therapy helps with depression. It doesn’t seem to help people with depression because of a long stay in the hospital. But it might help people with clinical depression.
- Down syndrome. Early research shows that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) with dolphins might help children with Down syndrome to speak better. But AAT with elephants doesn’t seem to help with balance or posture, even if it does help with some muscle control.
- Fall prevention. Animal-assisted therapy using horses might help with balance and movement in older people. But it’s unclear if this improvement reduces falls.
- Fibromyalgia. Having a dog visit while waiting for an appointment might reduce pain in people with fibromyalgia.
- Heart failure. People with heart failure need to walk when they are in hospital. Having a dog with them seems to help them to walk farther. Having a dog visit also seems to reduce anxiety.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS). Animal-assisted therapy that involves horses might help with balance in people with MS. It seems to work best in those with more serious disease.
- Injury to the brain, spine, or nerves (neurological trauma). Animal-assisted therapy during a session with a therapist might help people with brain injury focus better.
- A type of anxiety that often develops after a terrifying event (post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD). Early research shows that animal-assisted therapy with a horse or dog seems to help with depression and other symptoms of PTSD.
- Pain after surgery. Early research shows that animal-assisted therapy with dogs reduces pain after surgery in children and adults.
- Feelings of well-being. Early research shows that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) with cat visits three times per week for 6 weeks doesn’t improve feelings of depression in the elderly. Other early research shows that AAT with dogs does not improve psychological well-being in elderly people with age-related disabilities. But having a dog visit every week seems to help older people living in care homes feel happier.
- Schizophrenia. Early research shows that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) using a therapy dog during treatment sessions for schizophrenia improves motivation and the level of pleasure derived from every day activities compared to treatment sessions alone. Other early research shows that using a therapy cat or dog helps improves social behavior, daily living, and well-being in people with this condition.
- Hardening of skin and connective tissue (scleroderma). Early research shows that one session or more of animal-assisted therapy with a dog might help to reduce pain and anxiety in people with scleroderma.
- A muscle control disorder marked by involuntary movements and muscle tightness (spasticity). Early research shows that animal-assisted therapy that uses horses might help with muscle tightness in people who have injured their back.
- Stroke. Horse therapy might help with muscle strength and balance in people that have had a stroke.
- Muscle strength.
- Quality of life.
- Spinal cord injury.
- Other conditions.
More evidence is needed to rate the effectiveness of AAT for these uses.
AAT that involves physical touch might stimulate pleasure in the brain. This seems to promote relaxation and well-being. AAT might also work by distracting patients from pain and activating comforting thoughts.
Some people might be allergic to certain animals used in AAT. There have also been reports of animals used in AAT carrying diseases that have been transmitted to patients. Animals used for AAT should be always be screened by a veterinarian. In rare cases, people that have used equine therapy have fallen or hurt their back.
Special Precautions & Warnings:
Pregnancy and breast-feeding: There isn’t enough reliable information to know if AAT is safe to use when pregnant or breast-feeding. However, there’s no reason to suspect safety concerns when used correctly.
Children: AAT is LIKELY SAFE when used appropriately.
The basic purpose of AAT is to provide companionship. The most commonly used animals in pet therapy are dogs, which allow for the best level of interaction. However, cats, birds, fish, horses, and other animals have also been used for therapeutic purposes.
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