The Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy
Are you an animal lover? Do you have pets? Well, even if you don’t, there is increasing support with animal-assisted therapy helping healthcare therapists reach more goals with their patients. Interacting with animals can aid in one’s well-being in any situation, but particularly with special needs children or those having an autism spectrum disorder.
Support in using pet therapy can be seen most recently in a study by occupational therapy students at Quinnipiac’s Center for Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences in North Haven, Connecticut. A therapy dog was provided to highly stressed students during finals and it was quickly evident that the anxiety-ridden students saw their vital signs including blood pressure and heart rate reduced after a short session of petting and cuddling. The therapy dog helped calm the students and lessen their stress levels.
The use of animals such as dogs, cats, fish and horses in a therapeutic setting has been often used within occupational therapy practice. It is considered to be a sensory modulation approach. In the last half of the twentieth century, research and professional recognition has been gained regarding the use of animal therapy. Making the animal a part of the therapeutic treatment for those with cognitive, social, and physical impairment has grown in popularity. In particular, the use of animals in therapy can greatly benefit children with autism spectrum disorders.
Different from service animals such as a seeing-eye dog servicing one person, therapy animals service many. The Good Dog Foundation, a nonprofit based in New York providing therapy services throughout the East Coast, have therapy dogs visiting treatment centers and residential schools. Their dogs are specially trained.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) animals help physical and occupational therapists meet specific goals important to individuals. They can be used to help someone suffering from a stroke, an injury, or trauma. Use of the AAT animals foster increased mobility, strength, range of motion, balance, to sensory integration, and motor skills.
Other animals used in this type of therapy include horses. Known as hippotherapy, it is seeing growth for treatment for individuals with disabilities. This strategy is used with physical therapists to promote functional outcomes in skill areas related to gross motor ability. Occupational therapists use the movement of the horse with other standard intervention strategies to work on fine motor control, sensory integration, and functional daily living skills. Horse-back riding helps improve balance, coordination, and gross and fine motor skills. Speech-language pathologists also can use hippotherapy and other animals such as dogs to encourage speech and language.
St. Mary’s Hospital in Bayside, NY has been using animal-assisted therapy since December 1998. Their occupational therapy staff has encouraged this program so that what was a one-dog therapy has grown to include several dogs visiting numerous times per month. The children eagerly anticipate their therapy sessions and interacting with their furry friends.