If you have a pet or grew up around animals, you already know that they could have a profound positive effect on our moods. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been shown in meta-studies to have an appreciable effect on depression, anxiety, and trauma symptoms, all of which are associated with a wide range of mental health issues.
Boston Drug Treatment Centers, a network of addiction treatment programs and mental health providers, reports that a growing number of inpatient programs in New England are using animal-assisted therapy for treating individuals with substance use disorders, which is a change from its more common use as part of continuing care after rehab.
AAT is more than pet ownership. It is a systematic therapeutic approach that is overseen by a qualified AAT expert with specific mental health goals in mind. Below are some of the ways AAT has been used successfully as part of ongoing rehab and aftercare:
The stigma against people with mental health issues remains incredibly strong, often leading to feelings of isolation. This can get even worse if the affected individuals are unable to converse with other people regularly. AAT can provide people with mental health issues companionship as well as a way of expressing themselves. What’s even better is that animals don’t judge their owners, which can help build self-confidence.
Anxiety is a common condition that’s become more widespread thanks to the stresses of modern lifestyles. Most anxiety and stress are a result of dysfunctions in the body’s fight or flight response, where the body overreacts to a perceived threat.
Anxiety symptoms are present in a wide variety of mental health conditions, including substance use disorders. Many of these symptoms are physical, including elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, and excessive sweating. These symptoms are often part of a feedback loop, where the anxiety gets worse as the symptoms become more intense.
Animal companions have been shown in multiple studies to counteract these symptoms, often blunting emergent panic attacks before they become serious. What’s interesting is it’s not just the usual animals like cats, dogs, and horses that can create this effect, but fish, mice, lizards, and other animal companions as well. This means having a pet or trying AAT can be a good idea for people with anxiety disorders or recurrent anxiety symptoms.
A recent study by Hungarian researchers found AAT to improve empathetic thinking and behavior among patients being treated for addiction. People with mental health problems often have impaired empathy, either being too sensitive or not sensitive enough to the inputs and emotions of others. Because empathy is a skill, this deficiency can be compounded in people who are poorly socialized, which is often the case when one is frequently mentally distressed.
Animal companions or pets can provide an opportunity to practice empathetic thinking. AAT may be especially beneficial in this regard as people need to exercise empathy and patience more actively with animals than with humans. This practice may, in turn, increase one’s ability to practice empathetic thinking with other people.
Getting enough exercise can be key to maintaining one’s mental health. Moderate exercise releases a flood of hormones that creates a good mood and feelings of contentment that could be useful for helping one’s emotional regulation. However, it’s very difficult for most people to find the internal motivation to exercise regularly — and this is where therapy animals or pets can come in.
Walking your dog or cat, provided that they enjoy it, can be a good way to get that motivation you need to get moving. Some animals can be very persuasive when it comes to begging for walks. If you live by yourself, having a pet or therapy animal that requires exercise can be a good motive for you to get some as well.
Routines are important for people recovering from mental health issues, as their minds are often too occupied to actively engage in self-care. Building a routine by one’s self can be extremely difficult, as it requires discipline and internal motivation, which are things one often needs to build up to. A routine tends to be easier when it is anchored around regular events, such as a work or school schedule, or the needs of your animal companion.
The daily needs of your pet or support animal can be a good way to provide the external motivation needed to anchor the other parts of one’s day. Self-care activities such as exercise, meditation, and healthy meal preparation can then be slowly inserted into one’s daily schedule, using the animal’s needs as a jump-off point. With time, you can make these other healthy activities second nature, which frees you up to do more, mentally.
If you’re interested in animal-assisted therapy, consult your therapist or another qualified mental health expert. Taking care of another life is not something anyone can take on responsibly. Talking to your therapist or someone with AAT certification first can ensure better outcomes for both you and any would-be animal companion.