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Animal Assisted Therapy

Animal assisted therapy (AAT) uses trained animals to enhance an individual's physical, emotional and social well-being, thus improving self-esteem, reducing anxiety and facilitating healing. Animal assisted therapy is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical health-care treatment process.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a type of therapy that involves animals as a form of treatment.

The goal of AAT is to improve a patient’s social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. Advocates state that animals can be useful for educational and motivational effectiveness for participants.

Which conditions can be helped with Animal Assisted Therapy?

Animal assisted therapy is considered a new way to deal with depression, anxiety, and childhood aliments such as Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Autism.

Animal-Assisted Therapy can help children who have experienced abuse or neglect, patients undergoing chemotherapy or other difficult medical treatments.

Working with a therapy animal has also resulted in behavioral improvement in children and a reduction in depression for elderly with dementia.

What are the steps followed in Animal Assisted Therapy?

Steps in animal-assisted therapy include three stages for physical and psychological health improvement.

Stage One:

Patient goes to session with therapist without animals present to assess therapy needs. The next session the animal is introduced to the client and interactions between the animal and client begin.

Stage Two:

Developing a bond between the animal and client by developing motor skills. Examples include feeding the animal treats or grooming. Then an introduction of verbal skills using verbal commands such as stay and sit. Therapists use animals as a form of motivation for the client. The client is asked to perform tasks like getting water and food for their animal to improve motor functions like walking. Positive social interactions with animals is translated and generalized to positive human interactions.

Stage Three:

Therapist monitors improvement with animal interaction and human interaction and judges positive social situation. Patients are then given power and independence with the freedom to make choices for the animal assisted therapy partner. After client can interact with humans as well as they can with animals treatment is complete.

As with all other interventions, assessing whether a program is effective as far as its outcomes are concerned is easier when the goals are clear and are able to be specified. The literature review identified a range of goals for animal assisted therapy programs relevant to children and young people. They include enhanced capacity to form positive relationships with others i-relief in pet ownership

Who delivers Animal Assisted Therapy?

AAT is delivered or directed by a professional health or human service provider who demonstrates skill and expertise regarding the clinical applications of human-animal interactions.

What should one expect on a visit to a practitioner of AAT?

There are many different animals used in AAT, from dogs and cats to horses and even dolphins, each of which may require travel to the site where the animals are maintained.

Therapy may also take place in an institution like a hospital, nursing home, school or library. There is typically no preparation needed for therapy when animals come to visit. In a hospital setting, volunteers will usually bring their animals at specific times, and patients are welcome to pet, talk to and interact with them.

Are there any side effects or indications where AAT should be avoided?

Safety is always a consideration when working with animals. It is important to ensure that the volunteer handler has done the necessary preparation to have his animal adequately trained. The animal should be up to date on all necessary vaccinations and should be in good health. Organizations providing AAT should be able to validate this information. Treatment using larger animals like horses and dolphins should only be done by certified therapists.

Some people are afraid of animals, particularly large ones. It is important to assess the willingness of the client to participate in AAT. A preliminary step often involves visiting the animal or therapeutic site to evaluate the potential relationship and interaction.

Allergies are another aspect to consider. Clearly, allergies to a particular animal could make therapy difficult, and would most likely be a reason not to use AAT if the response is severe enough to interfere with the interaction.

Those with severe mental health disorders should be closely monitored to ensure the safety of both animal and client. Anyone with reduced immunity - individuals with active HIV/AIDS, cancer patients receiving chemotherapy or radiation, those on high-dose steroids and other immune-suppressive medications - should get clearance from their physician before participating in AAT.

Which Physical improvements can be expected through Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Physical improvements of health expected with Animal-Assisted Therapy include:

* decreased stress levels

* reduction of anger and aggression

* decreased hostility towards themselves and others

* improved social interactions

* decrease in heart rate and blood pressure to normal levels

* increase in the release of beta-endorphins

* improvement in self-esteem, patience, trust, sense of empowerment.

What kind of animals are used in animal assisted therapy?

Animals used in therapy include domesticated pets, farm animals and marine mammals (such as dolphins).

How to learn animal assisted therapy activities?

Animal assisted activities are delivered in a variety of environments by specially trained professionals, paraprofessionals, or volunteers in association with animals that meet specific criteria. Please find references on the right side of this page to learn animal assisted therapy activities.

Are there other therapies that might work well in conjunction with AAT?

Typically, AAT has been used to promote socialization, provide distraction, enhance trust and improve overall well-being. It can be used with most mind/body therapies that help with relaxation and calming the stress response - sometimes even during therapy itself - as long as conscious awareness is maintained.

The branch of animal assisted therapy that utilizes horses - known as hippotherapy - is often done by occupational, physical or speech therapists, and is used in conjunction with the various treatments they might select in a particular session.

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