Paws for Thought: The Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy (Pet Therapy)

February 28, 2020

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT – also known as ‘pet therapy’) is a therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals (usually dogs) to complement or enhance the benefits of therapy. Pet therapy has been shown to benefit children, adults and the elderly, and has been used almost everywhere – from prisons, to hospitals, to nursing homes.

Pet therapy is thought to work because if we see animals at rest, this tells us that we are safe and secure. With dogs, they have ‘mirror neurons’ – this is a type of cell in the brain, that allows them to connect with humans during a therapeutic encounter.

It has been used for a variety of physical and mental health problems – it has been shown to improve autism-spectrum symptoms, medical difficulties, behavioural problems and emotional well-being.

Benefits of pet therapy:

  • Releases chemicals that improve mood after just 15 minutes
  • Improves social and physical well-being
  • Decreases blood pressure
  • Promotes a feeling of safety
  • Alleviates loneliness and isolation by providing companionship
  • Promotes increased social interaction
  • Provides a safe, non-judgemental presence, that allows people to express feelings and process their thoughts more easily
  • Reinforce positive behaviours and decrease negative ones
  • Decreases anxiety and stress
  • Give comfort through body contact
  • Better patient engagement
  • Increased attachments – if a person connects with an animal, they will find it easier to form bonds with people
  • In schools, there is increased creative writing and reading skills, and participation in group activities

This extensive list of benefits will come as no surprise to those of us who are animal lovers. Pet owners might have noticed some of them in a non-therapeutic context. Owning a pet is a big commitment; if you love animals but can’t have your own, volunteering to walk a friends dog, or at an animal shelter can provide the same benefits.

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