Uncovering the positive role of therapy animals


Justine Chen and Diana Xu

A 400-pound llama guided by an animal trainer walks through the sliding doors of a hospital. Puzzled onlookers turn their heads and stare as a nine-year-old diagnosed with autism tentatively walks up to the llama with a carrot in hand, which it eats eagerly. The girl smiles, stroking the animal’s soft fur. This unusual scene is one example of a treatment that has been increasingly implemented in rehabilitation facilities, children’s hospitals, senior communities and schools across the country: animal-assisted therapy (AAT).  

AAT is not a new concept; it was first recognized in the 1800s by the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale. She observed reduced anxiety among mentally ill patients when they communed with small pets, which enabled AAT to grow into an official treatment to nurse the sick. The popularity of this type of therapy has accelerated since its initial boom; AAT is now used in a variety of settings.

“There are many types of animals and they all have individual benefits,” said veterinary technician Jessica Ramirez. “One of the most common benefits could be pinpointed as being comfort to their companion. Many persons who are in need of a therapy animal suffer from different types of behaviors, whether it be social anxiety, anxiety, PTSD and many more.”

AAT is a type of therapy in which interacting with animals improves an individual’s social, emotional and cognitive function. It involves patients interacting with an animal in individual or group settings. Often mistaken for animal-assisted activities, which involves casual meetings with an animal and its handler, AAT consists of a structured set of sessions in which specific treatment goals for an individual’s medical conditions are targeted. Goals range from teaching social flexibility to improving cardiovascular health among patients diagnosed with medical disorders.

Contrary to the common belief that therapy animals are merely dogs and cats, AAT animals include llamas, rabbits, birds, guinea pigs, rats, horses and fish. These animals can also be easily confused with emotional support animals (ESA). Though both provide emotional comfort and companionship affection, ESAs are trained to help a disabled individual function, while AAT animals are taught to be more socially adjusted and to encourage individuals to further their treatment.

The therapeutic uses of pets as companions have grown for a variety of patients. From briefly caressing a dog before boarding an airplane to frequently being visited by animals, AAT can aid in one’s psychological well-being. Numerous studies have shown that the mere act of petting an animal promotes the release of phenylethylamine, serotonin and oxytocin, hormones that help relax and soothe the body. AAT also reduces the feeling of isolation and stimulates mental activity in patients. Patients often feel more comfortable interacting with animals than humans; while it can be difficult for individuals with emotional disorders to trust others, it can be easier for them to trust a therapy animal. Thus, during rehabilitation, people are more motivated to recover from their disorders when working with a therapy animal.

“I think bringing in therapy dogs to Lynbrook not only builds up everyone’s energy, but it also provides that stress-relieving element,” said senior Jessica Peng, a coordinator for the Challenge Success program which annually brings therapy dogs onto campus. “We bring over the dogs the week before AP testing when the stress level is very high. Animals aren’t like humans where they will judge you; animals are very good partners for humans.”

In addition to improving mental health, AAT is used to benefit patients suffering from emotional and behavioral disorders such as autism, Asperger’s and dementia. For patients with head injuries or dementia, interacting with therapy animals assists in recalling memories.

Interacting with pets also fosters socialization and increase responsiveness. In 2011, Thai Elephant Conservation Center enlisted two elephants to provide therapy for autistic children. By feeding and petting the elephants, the children adjusted to touching different textures. While playing games with the elephants encouraged socialization in group environments, painting and drawing the elephants also sparked their imagination. The allure of animals is that they are able to interact with humans without a spoken language, improving the children’s communication skills.

“Many kids [staying in hospitals] miss being with their pets at home,” said Jacob Lore, a Child Life Specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “This is a way for them to reconnect with animals. It can also be calming to one patient and fun or exciting to another.”

Though the success rate of each AAT case has not be ascertained, there is no doubt that the treatment can positively impact those in need. Beyond the mental and physical benefits of AAT, its greatest benefit is in fostering friendship and companionship between humans and animals.