Animal assisted therapy (AAT) and animal assisted activities (AAA) are quickly becoming more prevalent in the health care field due to the myriad benefits they offer patients. AAT offers a more specific therapeutic goal and intervention with the animal while AAA is more open ended, less formalized, and usually comes in the form of visitations. Animal assisted interventions (AAI) is the umbrella term used to describe these practices.
As the validity of AAI as a therapeutic intervention mounts, hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care institutions across the country are adopting AAI practices with great success. Some enlist the help of organizations such as Pet Partners, The Good Dog Foundation, or Therapy Dogs International to provide dog-therapy teams for vulnerable populations. Each team includes a dog and trainer (usually the dog’s owner), both of whom have completed a comprehensive training and certification program. This process enables both dog and trainer to learn how to best communicate with one another as well as interact therapeutically with the public, and more specifically, with vulnerable populations such as the elderly, people with terminal illnesses, children, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) survivors, and people with physical and mental disabilities.
AAI has been instituted in several large and notable hospitals such as Memorial Sloan Kettering, Mount Sinai, New York Methodist, and New York-Presbyterian hospitals. In May 2011, Pfizer and the American Humane Association teamed up on a research program designed to measure the impact of AAT on pediatric oncology patients as well as on their family members/caregivers.1 This collaboration represents a significant shift in thinking, and an effort to validate that AAI programs are impactful, relevant, and efficient therapeutic practices we should consider employing in the health care/mental health field.1 In addition, many hospitals across the country have begun allowing patients’ own pets to visit while the owner is hospitalized. This practice has become popular because of the immediate and lasting benefits of being near a pet that is also an integral and beloved family member.
AAI is most vital when a patient is faced with a particularly scary, vulnerable, or life-threatening situation. The presence of a warm and accepting creature can provide a sense of security, comfort, and love that can help patients to heal more quickly. The benefits of interacting with a dog (or other domesticated animal) have been well documented; it can reduce blood pressure; ease stress, anxiety, and depression; relieve pain; and contribute to an overall sense of well being. Biologically speaking, domesticated animals are an essential part of our evolution as human beings, and for thousands of years have provided safety, companionship, and comfort as our brains confronted survival dilemmas. This has inextricably linked us as a species to our animal counterparts and helps us to tap into a different part of our brains, thereby enabling us to let down our defenses. A study conducted by Rebecca Johnson, PhD, RN, of the University of Missouri-Columbia Center for the Study of Animal Wellness, showed that when a human pets a dog, within minutes they experience a massive release of beneficial hormones known to be associated with health and feelings of well being, such as beta endorphin, prolactin, dopamine, oxytocin, and beta phenylethylamine.2,3 Interacting with an animal also reduces the presence of the stress hormone cortisol, enabling people to better cope with stressful and anxiety-provoking situations.