Did you know that the presence of a cat or dog in a counseling office can speed the therapeutic process for some patients? Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) was introduced by psychologist Boris Levinson in the 1950s when he discovered that his dog Jingles was able to connect with autistic children in a way humans had not.
Since then, AAT has continued to develop as a therapeutic science. Although dogs are the most frequently used therapy animals, cats, birds, rabbits, horses, donkeys, llamas and even pigs and snakes participate in different programs.
According to research, when people hold and stroke an animal, many positive physical and psychological transitions occur, including lowered blood pressure, a feeling of calm, the ability to be more extroverted and verbal, decreased loneliness and increased self-esteem.
Susan Lee Bady, a clinical social worker who uses cats in her practice, says the cats serve a number of different functions, including facilitating emotional expression and touching; encouraging spontaneity and fun; and providing the kind of unconditional love seldom found in human relationships.
Bady's patients report feelings of peacefulness and serenity when they watch cats cuddle and groom each other. This feeling is enhanced when a cat jumps into a patient's lap. Some patients speak more freely while holding or petting a cat. Patients out of touch with their emotions are sometimes able to identify and understand their emotions by watching the behavior of the cats.
Patients with trust issues learn to trust Bady by watching her with her cats. Bady's cats, like all pets, are independent souls. This independence and lack of predictability helps needy or insecure patients cope better with what they perceive as personal slights in everyday life. For example, when patients feel a cat doesn't like them because he or she won't sit in their lap, Bady uses that reaction to open a discussion about their neediness and the problems it might be creating in their lives.
There's a plethora of literature amassed on the many different ways animals help children and adults with psychiatric illness, mood disorders, developmental and learning disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental and emotional challenges.
One study of hospitalized psychiatric patients concluded that animal-assisted therapy significantly reduced anxiety for patients with psychotic, mood and other disorders.
Another study published in the Journals of Gerontology showed that animal-assisted therapy reduced loneliness in residents of long-term care facilities - especially for those folks who previously owned pets.
A study conducted at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University concluded children with pervasive development disorders (PDD) who lack social communication abilities "exhibited a more playful mood, were more focused, and were more aware of their social environments when in the presence of a therapy dog."
In a report titled "Animal-Assisted Therapy in Psychiatric Rehabilitation," researchers studied the effect of AAT on a group of male and female psychiatric inpatients. By the fourth week of the study, "patients in the AAT group were significantly more interactive with other patients, scored higher on measures of smiles and pleasure, were more sociable and helpful with others and were more active and responsive to surroundings."
Aaron Katcher, M.D., a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, claims there is tremendous evidence for the success of animal-assisted therapy in controlled studies, such as depressed patients had increased socialization and decreased depression; children with severe ADHD and conduct disorder had decreased aggressive behavior and improved attention; patients with autism or developmental disabilities had increased socialization and improved attention; and patients with Alzheimer's had improved attention and decreased aggression and anger.
According to Katcher, there is also clinical and anecdotal evidence that patients with dissociative disorders and agoraphobia are able to decrease anxiety and increase social skills when they have companion animals.
With all the benefits pets provide, shouldn't you consider bringing one of these little miracle workers home today? Visit your local shelter for the largest selection of adoptable pets in your community.
Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.