Animal Assisted Interventions – An Analysis

 April 13, 2013
Posted by M&LAdmin4

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” Those words, spoken by French author, poet and journalist Anatole France, refer to the incredible connection that can exist between a human and an animal. History, both literal and fictional, is littered with references to emotional links between man and animal, pet and pet owner. In fact, Americans feel so strongly about this connection that the American Veterinarian Medical Association has called it the Human-Animal Bond, and defined it as “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.[i]

Considering the health benefits that are purported to accompany pet ownership – the Center for Disease Control claims that “pets decrease blood pressure, cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness, while increasing the likelihood of exercise and socialization[ii]” – it is not surprising that medical professionals have considered applying the positive influence that animals have on the human psyche in other ways. In fact, in the last few decades therapists have done just that – in the mid 1980’s these concepts surrounding the human-animal bond led to the development of Animal Assisted Interventions, and the popularity of these therapeutic practices has been growing steadily ever since.

What are Animal Assisted Interventions?

Animal Assisted Interventions is a term which includes a number of different therapies – it encompasses animal assisted activities, animal assisted therapies, service animals, companion animals, and residential animals.

Animal assisted activities are activities in which animals and patients participate, with the intention of providing opportunities for the patient to grow, learn, and/or develop relationships with the animal, other patients, and/or therapist. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), the more formalized animal assisted intervention, relies on the supervised use of trained animals (with specific characteristics) to help a patient realize a specific goal in a therapeutic setting. Service animals, most commonly canine, can be trained to aid people who have a disability or illness (i.e. visual disability, seizures, diabetes, etc.) live a normal life by increasing mobility, independence, and alerting the owner to physical concerns, among other things. Residential animals are those who live in treatment facilities, and can encourage and motivate patients to attend and anticipate treatment sessions. The residential animal may or may not be included in individualized therapeutic treatment. Please click here to read the Guidelines for Animal Assisted Interventions laid out by the American Veterinarian Medical Association.

Horses and dogs are most commonly associated with Animal Assisted Therapy, but this is no doubt directly related to the relative ease of accessibility of these animals. In truth, the species of animal that can be used in animal assisted therapy is as varied as the illness or disabilities which this therapy tries to treat. Dolphins, cats, and rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, and chicks, as well as horses and dogs, have been known to participate in animal therapy – as the animal used in the therapy is chosen based on specific characteristics they may possess, then the type of animal used is directly relevant to the purpose of the therapy. For example, cats are smaller, less intimidating, and often less active than dogs, so they may be used in individualized therapy sessions where the patient is uncomfortable with excessive stimuli. Conversely, a dog may be used over a cat in a group therapy session, as dogs typically enjoy interacting with multiple people at the same time.

What can Animal Assisted Intervention treat? How can AAI help my Child with Special Needs?

An Animal Assisted Intervention can be a part of a treatment plan to effectively combat a wide variety of illnesses, conditions, and disabilities. The most important aspect of any animal assisted intervention is the facilitation of a trusting relationship between the patient and the animal, which in turn leads to a development of trust and openness between the patient, the animal and the therapist. Animal Assisted therapies have been used to treat a wide range of physical illnesses and disabilities, for example multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and paralysis, to name a few, but it is also used to treat mental and emotional illness, such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, anorexia, etc.  Animal Assisted Therapy has also been used to treat patients with autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, and Down syndrome. For more information on the benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy and the conditions it can be used to treat, please click here.

Parents of children with special needs may wish to pay attention to Animal Assisted Interventions for a number of reasons; evidence[iii] has been offered that animals can improve the emotional and physical health of patients, as well as motivating patients to reach developmental and therapeutic goals. There is no doubt that animals can teach children important lessons about responsibility, compassion, empathy, and loyalty. An animal can also offer non-judgmental acceptance, support, and unconditional love to a child with special needs- this acceptance may be a powerful motivator for a child with special needs. For example, children who are non-verbal may wish to learn speak in order to communicate with the animal. Equine and dolphin therapy may encourage children who have difficulties with mobility to develop skills that will enable them to interact with the animal – in fact, horseback riding has been known to help develop muscles that help with mobility. Equine therapy also offers support and companionship to children with Autism, without the social demands of a human relationship (i.e. eye contact, language, etc). For more information, check out this great article on the benefits of animal assisted therapy when treating specific conditions.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Animal Assisted Intervention lies in the emotional boost that comes from interacting with animals. The sense of well-being, relaxation, unconditional love and support that results in bonding with an animal ensures that every animal assisted intervention is worthwhile. Please click here for advice on finding a qualified animal intervention therapist  in your area. You may also wish to read this great article by Dr. Andrew Weil on Animal Assisted Therapy for addition information.

If you have any questions on this or any other topic related to special needs planning, please don’t hesitate to send an email or give us a call. We love hearing from you! Also, you may wish to check out our next workshop, Navigating the Financial World of the Family with Special Needs on April 30th, 2013 at the TCL Treatment and Learning Center in Rockville, MD. Please click here to register for this free workshop.

Thanks for stopping by our blog today…from all of us to all of you, happy Saturday!



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