Animal assisted theory Essay


The purpose of this paper is to show the importance of therapy, particularly focusing on animal assisted therapy.  It will illustrate how certain animals – dogs, rabbits, dolphins, elephants, horses, and cats – have helped people in terms of healthcare and treatment.  By way of research and literature review, this paper aims to define what animal assisted therapy is, show the importance of animal assisted therapy in healthcare and treatment, as well as the guidelines on how pets or animals can be used in therapy.


Many people go through different forms of therapy.  Some undergo physical therapy wherein they focus on exercising a particular body part to regain its use or strengthen it.  Some other therapies include, talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoanalytic therapy, group therapy and even the newly conceptualized E-therapy or online therapy (Wagner 2008).  Therapy has been an important part of healthcare and treatment.  It has helped a lot of patients recover faster and maintain a good and balanced physical as well as mental health condition

Therapy is synonymous to treatment.  It aims not only to treat an existing health problem but also to find ways of changing or altering the three dimensions of a person: thoughts, feelings and behavior.  Many studies have shown promising results with the use of animal assisted therapy in patients with different health problems or illness.  Most of the patients who have gone through this type of therapy have indeed reached their therapeutic goals.  Doctors and other health providers who are working closely with patients undergoing animal assisted therapy have noticed positive and promising results as far as patient’s attitude, behavior and outlook is concerned.  Animal Assisted therapy has said to be widely used with patients from children to adults suffering from various illnesses as well as behavioral, emotional and psychological problems.


Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a type of therapy which uses animals to assist patients as they undergo therapy facilitating healing and rehabilitation of patients (Therapet 2008).  It involves the use of trained animals to facilitate interaction between animal and patient with a purpose of assisting patients’ progress toward achieving their therapeutic goals (American Psychiatric Association 1998).  Animals that are used are mostly pets like dogs, cats, birds, fish and guinea pigs.  Animals, which can’t be pets, are also used in this type of therapy such as elephants, horses and dolphins. An intervention which is goal directed is the focus of animal assisted therapy wherein the animal must meet a certain criterion is an important part of the treatment process (American Veterinary Medical Association 2007).  Although the therapy uses animals, it is often directed and implemented by a trained and certified human healthcare volunteer or healthcare professionals (American Veterinary Medical Association 2007)

The field of modern medicine has discovered a new and exciting study with the Dolphin Assisted Therapy (D.A.T.).  Considered as part of Animal therapy, it has shown promising outcomes and results in comparison with conventional methods of medicine like prescriptions and human therapy (Lukina 2000).  Dolphins are innately friendly and playful mammals and humans can’t help but be amazed by them.  It seems that dolphins can easily win the favor an attention of any human being; and this particular characteristic is more than enough to make them ideal therapy assistants.  Although, they are limited as far as mobilization is concerned, their confinement in pools or other bodies of water has not hindered them to be a part of animal assisted therapy programs.  Dolphins enjoy entertaining people and love the attention that is given to them.  In this way, patients who visit dolphins and watch them do trick, pet them and feed them, stirs an intense interest and curiosity which enables the patients to open up and interact with the animal.  The interest of interacting with someone or something is a good sign for it opens the path towards achieving a particular goal in therapy.  According to Dr. Ludmila Lukina (2000), uniting the psychological and physical components of therapy during the treatment process offers stability for positive outcomes in the patient’s therapy.  This, she says, is the core of methodology in a dolphin assisted therapy.  By opening the patient’s internal power to heal, dolphin assisted therapy has shown to have helped cure diseases in children as well as maintaining a strong and stable outcome (Lukina 2000).  Much smaller than dolphins, beta fish, or the Siamese fighting fish” is also used for therapy.  The objective of using fish for therapy is mostly to decrease depression and loneliness, lower blood pressure and help patient to reminisce a pet that he or she had before.

Elephants are majestic animals.  Their size alone amazes us.  Spending time with great giants is motivation enough for a child who undergoes treatment, or any child for that matter.  In a game farm outside Pretoria in South Africa, an elephant named Boelie has helped a girl with behavioral problems with her therapy.  The elephant provided a lot of characteristics that awakened the girl’s interest and curiosity such as its “rough skin, soft ears, long trunk, wet snout, and interesting noises” (Kraft 2007).  Together with the child’s parents and psychologist, animal assisted therapy through an elephant named Boelie, has reinforced the reward given for each behavior accomplished such as using the bathroom alone, walking up and down the stairs by herself, buttoning her school blouse and read books (Kraft 2007).  For each accomplishment, she was rewarded with another visit to see the elephant and this idea has kept her going and doing good in learning and acquiring new skills as well as increasing her confidence.  Another study was recorded with a 13-year old boy suffering from cerebral palsy.  He doesn’t talk, resisted using his limbs and was just totally uncooperative.  The same therapeutic program, as with the little girl, was given to him with the same elephant-Boelie.  The first visit has sparked an interest with the boy.  For each attempt and accomplishment of the established therapeutic goals, the reward was another visit to the game farm where the elephant is.  After months of visiting and interacting with the two thousand pounds therapist, the boy talks in a normal manner with more confidence and his social skills has greatly improved (Kraft 2007).

Rabbits are small, cute and cuddly furred animals.  They come in different shades and are mostly characterized as tame and perfect for petting.  In a study with an ADHD boy who is constantly visited by angel (the rabbit’s name), the boy displayed fondness of the rabbit by petting it gently.  The bunny’s visit enhances the program’s socialization by encouraging the patient to interact (Wagie 2007).  During the bunny’s visit to the center of special kids, it has been very tolerant of the kids’ behavior as they pet and cuddled the animal.  The rabbit apparently has easily adapted to the environment and the attention it receives does not bother it.  In a therapy which involves a boy having ADHD (attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder) it was noticed that the boy behaves gently around the bunny.  Because of its features and size, rabbits or bunnies encourages gentleness in actions, promotes artistic ability and most of all, encourages children and people to smile; and as we know, when a child starts smiling, it is a positive sign which paves the way of reaching a certain goal in therapy.

Horses are interesting animals.  They may not be as big as the elephants but they are equally as interesting.  Horse assisted therapy is often referred to as horseback riding program wherein people under the program are required to ride on horseback with each and every visit (Wagie 2007).  Horse assisted therapy has two types: 1. hippotherapy, which is given by a licensed physical therapist and 2. Therapeutic riding which is like a riding lesson (Wagie 2007).  A strategy treatment called Hippotherapy is usually used by occupational, physical and speech therapists, wherein they carefully modulate the horse’s movement to manipulate the changes in a patient’s neuromuscular activity (wikipedia 2008).  Both programs cater to patients with special needs from children to adults as well as ordinary clients.  The program is designed to cover a variety of disabilities in both physical and cognitive aspects (Wagie 2007).  According to Kathy Altick (Wagie 2007), a Horsemanship Manager/Therapeutic instructor in Camp Berachah, in western Washington state, riders and clients benefit from this type of therapy by improving their posture, balance and coordination (Wagie 2007).  While they strengthen their muscles, the riders and clients also maintain and improve their muscles’ circulation, mobility and coordination (Wagie 2007).  Having improved those, they sill surely have a better self-esteem and increased self-confidence as manifested in their social interactions with other riders and clients.  One of the most important benefit of horse assisted therapy is encouragement because it is what feeds that rider’s and the patient’s desire to perform or accomplish a certain behavior.  Through this, they realize their achievement in each step of the program while building the desire of positive attitudes and outlook such as caring for horses.  Riding on horseback provides thrill and excitement that brings joyful exhilaration to clients that they fully enjoy.  In catering for handicapped clients, the staff should be certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, and trained volunteers (Wagie 2007).  They don’t only instruct but also give support and encouragement.  It is not only that riders or clients who benefit from this type of therapy.  The horses themselves get good physical and obedience training on a regular basis; and even if the therapy is on regular basis, animal usage is mild.  Volunteers themselves benefit from the therapy they are involved in because it makes them a more caring and compassionate person (Wagie 2007)

Although a lot of animals have already been used to assist people in therapy, the most common and widely used animal is the dog.  Any breed of dog can be used in therapy for as long as they meet the following qualifications: they should be sociable, health screened, an on-going education for both the animal and its owner, a liability insurance covering the animal during volunteer work (Therapet 2008).  Dogs should be health screened to make sure that it has healthy teeth, no intestinal parasites, healthy skin and coat which all can show that the dogs is in an overall healthy condition ideal for therapy.  Dogs are naturally playful and affectionate.  Dubbed as man’s best friend, it has literally been man’s best buddy in whatever activity; but because of its energy, dogs should be trained regularly so that it can channel its energy properly.  Friendliness is not the only qualification for a good therapy dog.  It must also be calm and tolerant.  Too active dogs may not be suitable for certain situations (Blackman 1996).

Like dogs, cats are now being used in various nursing homes and medical facilities; but they are primary used to visit patients in nursing homes to keep them company (Oracle Education Foundation 2007).  In the past, American shorthair cats are used for this.  It was just recently that longhaired cats are being used; but not all cats are ideal for therapy programs.  The most ideal cat for therapy programs are Persian cats.  They are most suitable because they work well with people, naturally calm and show unconditional love (Oracle Education Foundation 2007).  For old people, stroking the cat’s fur brings back old memories while providing release from loneliness.  Old age brings several physical ailments like arthritis.  Stroking and grooming cats serve as therapy for these old people because it helps condition their muscles as well as improving flexibility (Oracle Education Foundation 2007).  Children and teens in mental health facilities also benefit a lot from visiting cats because it promotes the learning of responsibility and proper hygiene.  Good therapy cats should at least be a year old with a good personality.  Cat’s age is important because of the fact that cats are working in medical facilities, it is exposed to germs; thus cats that are older don’t get sick easily.  Cats used for animal assisted therapy have a health check with veterinarians and get immunized, go through training programs exposing them to different loud noises, crowd and frequent handling (Oracle Education Foundation 2007).  After all the training and visit to the veterinarian the cat is brought to the medical facility with its animal assisted therapist (its human counterpart) and meet with necessary persons to arrange and talk about the program, therapeutic goals and patient profile (Oracle Education Foundation 2007).

After the training and screening, pets and pet owners can now volunteer and bring not only happiness but also healing power to the people in the community.  Enriching not only the lives of those who are ill but also pets enrich the lives of their owners and their own as well (Wagie 2007).

Animal assisted therapy was found to have helped in improving the outcomes in autism spectrum symptoms, medical difficulties, behavioral problems, and emotional well-being during the 2007 meta-analysis study (wikipedia 2008).  This type of therapy has increased attention span, level of motivation, verbal interaction, self-esteem and self-confidence.  It has reduced stress, anxiety and loneliness; and is a very educational type of therapy because it promotes the increase of vocabulary, it aids in both long-term or short-term memory as well as the improved knowledge of concepts (Wikipedia 2008).

Animals have the ability to help people cope up and overcome loneliness and depression (Blackman 1996).  Several studies have shown how pets and therapy animals have helped people in motivating them to actively participate in their therapy and activity sessions (Duke 2006).  Matching one animal to a patient is one characteristic that gives animal assisted therapy its treatment program a formal and careful design (Duke 2006)

Two contributory factors for cardiovascular disease are stress and anxiety and many studies have shown that these are dramatically reduced in the presence of animals or pets.  Many researches have also reported about the decrease in blood pressure readings in adults and children with the presence of an animal during stressful situations (American Psychiatric Association 1998).  Stress and anxiety for patients hospitalized with having different psychiatric problems was seen to have decreased during the implementation of the animal assisted therapy in many hospitals and healthcare centers (Barker 1998).  The same goes for patients suffering from mood disorders.  Their participation in recreation activities with animals present also contributed to the decrease of anxiety levels and mood swings(Barker 1998).  The American Psychiatric Association (1998) has long associated animals as having positive effects on patients in different healthcare setting.  In nursing facilities for instance, hospitals and daycare centers, pets are used in the therapy of senior citizens.  Having pets is associated with low blood pressure, low blood triglyceride levels and an increase in socialization and activity levels (Stang 2002).  Having pets also increase the survival rate of patients after having a heart attack (Stang 2002).  Pets enable a child or an adult to care and this caring attitude encourages the individual to nurture and be responsible for that pet; and this as well as encourages the adherence to daily scheduled activities and treatment, or to the entire program (Oakley and Bardin n.d.).  Animals and pets have the ability to enable a person to reach outside themselves, to interact and be not fearful of uncertainties.  They help the person live on the present moment, like it does, making the person more aware of the moment, enjoying it and making it worth remembering (Oakley and Bardin n.d.).

Pets should be evaluated to see if it can be a good therapy assistant and this goes the same for all types of animals (Blackman 1996).  Which ever type of animal specie is used for animal assisted therapy, it is always important that the animal be temper tested.  Animals should undergo tests that would measure and record its temperament because therapeutic programs and visitations could be stressful at times.  They could be put in a stressful situation whenever they work with patients and it is of utmost important that animal behavior could be known and predicted for the safety of all involved in therapy (Therapet 2008).  To maintain the health condition of the animal, it is also important that the animal visits the vet often, fed well, given enough sleep; and aside from taking care of the animal’s physiologically, training and education for both the animal and the owner is also important.  Such would ensure the animal’s capacity to understand and go through the entire therapy program.


From all the research gathered and readings done, my final thought on the matter is that animal assisted therapy is indeed a very valuable type of therapy.  It is a new concept and the result of various researches about it are very promising.  Children who have special needs can also interact with dogs, cats, or other friendly pets and this give a positive impact on them. Children are naturally attracted to animals and are innately interested in them.  Having animals participate in their therapy enables the child, or any sick person at that to view the entire process in a positive way.  Such altered perception serves as a door to make the child or patient interested in carrying out the activities that are outlined in the program.  Although from all the animals that were used to assist therapy, dogs and cats appear to be the most credible animals to be used for therapy.  Not only that dogs and cats are the usual family pets, they already have established a long history of relationship with children and adults alike; Because of this long established relationship with animals, people, especially, children are easily motivated and their interest awakened whenever a dog or cat is present.  Animals have surely helped alter the patient’s behavior by first changing the patient’s perspective from negative to positive.  Such change in view alters the behavior making the individual more responsible not only for the animal but for himself as well, by way of participating more actively in the treatment and program design.  The person’s active participation clearly leads to the achievement of small goals to bigger ones as the therapy progresses.  Therefore, whatever the goals and objective that have been identified is apparently achievable with the help of animals through visitations or through animal assisted therapy.

Animals have the ability to melt a person’s heart, even that of an adult.  The characteristic of an animal enables a patient to open up a part of himself; and this “opening up” of oneself is one way that helps heal a sick person.  The ability to open up and share a part of yourself allows trust to come in, creating a bond that sparks life by being more sociable and interactive with the things and people around you.  Such change in behavior makes a person more positive and therefore more cooperative in every activity because somehow, all the negativity has already been replaced by a positive energy and feeling inside the person.  It is like working magic and healing from within.  Treatment with people is more often than not described as something negative.  People don’t usually go well or interact well with people, especially the sick ones because there will always be a feeling of fear, suspicion and even paranoia; but with animals, it is totally the opposite.  Studies from physically disabled children and teens, psychologically sick teens and adults, old people suffering from arthritis and other physical problems as well as those with heart attacks, all of these studies have recorded a positive and promising result that animals can indeed be great healthcare assistants as well.  Sick children and teens can be very stubborn and difficult to deal with especially those with psychological problems and those suffering from traumatic experiences.  Sick adults in turn can be very uncooperative especially the old people.  Paranoia and anger are often the main reasons why it is so difficult to have adults and old people participate in the treatment.  Having them go near a human being alone would not only spark suspicion in most cases but also it is a ticket for the treatment program to fail.  People, even though some are not animal lovers, always have a soft spot for animals in their heart; and this is what healthcare providers must reach first – the person’s heart – because it is where we can usually start changing the perspective of the person not only towards the treatment but also towards the healthcare providers as well.  In my various readings about animal assisted therapy and the researches done by various healthcare professionals and organizations, I can finally conclude that animal assisted therapy is a breakthrough in healthcare and should therefore be given importance and further study for it to be enhanced more for the benefit of not only the sick people but also for everybody because as I see it, animals can also help us stay healthy, active, social and happy.


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