Talk to the animals: Animal-assisted therapy offers emotional support

Matthew Solan
Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

My Shih Tzu, Latte, is like a therapist, personal trainer, and primary care physician all wrapped up into 10 pounds of white fluffiness. When you are bedridden with a cold, she never leaves your side until you are well. When you have a bad day, she is there with a comforting look that says, “Everything is going to be okay.” At 5 p.m., she reminds you that you’ve sat for too long and need to take her for a walk.

It turns out that Latte is doing what most animals naturally do with humans: provide comfort and support.

This type of therapeutic interaction even has a scientific name — animal-assisted therapy (AAT) — and research has shown it helps with a variety of emotional issues like depression, anxiety, and grief.

“The great thing about animals is they don’t have a preconceived notion of people,” says Dr. Henry Feldman, of the Division of General Internal Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “They provide unconditional love, which encourages interaction and helps people feel more confident.”

Animal-assisted therapy in action

Animal-assisted therapy involves interacting regularly with animals for a set time over weeks or months. The get-togethers usually involve dogs and cats in either individual or group settings, and consist of everything from petting to giving treats to just sitting together.

What happens when you interact with animals? Researchers speculate that levels of oxytocin, the “love hormone” that encourages bonding, often increase, as does the production of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical.

Animal-assisted therapy is often used in retirement centers to help people with depression. A study in the June 2013 Anthrozoos found that patients with dementia living in residential care who received 11 weeks of dog-assisted therapy improved their depression scores compared with those who had human-only therapy.

Hospitals also use animal-assisted therapy for patients coping with stressful treatment and recovery. A study in the January 2015 Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology explored how AAT — in this case therapy dogs — affected the well-being of cancer patients who underwent radiation therapy and chemotherapy. The patients received daily 15- to 20-minute animal visits for six weeks, and afterward reported a noticeable increase in their emotional well-being.

AAT is especially helpful for people healing after traumatic events like an accident, the death of a loved one, or catastrophes like the recent Pulse club shootings in Orlando. In fact, Orlando’s Trinity Lutheran Church coordinated with Chicago-based Lutheran Church Charities’ K-9 Comfort Dogs program to bring in golden retrievers to help with grief counseling for survivors, first responders, and volunteers.

Find your animal therapy

Physicians usually “prescribe” animal-assisted therapy, but you may need to be proactive and inquire about AAT and how it may complement your treatment and needs. But you don’t need a prescription to tap into AAT’s feel-good effects. Pet ownership is one way, but if you are not ready for that responsibility, check with your local senior center about public animal therapy programs, or volunteer with community partners of animal therapy organizations like Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International, and the Good Dog Foundation.

Another option: advertise your services as a local pet sitter or dog walker, or lend a hand to a pet-owning neighbor, friend, or family member. Or you could hang out with Latte for awhile. She would love it.

Learn more about the health benefits of canine companionship in the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report, Get Healthy, Get a Dog.

Comments:

  1. Valerie nevill

    I had a dog for 17 and half years.
    So miss him
    A medium size dog,not to hairy as I have c.o.p.d.
    He was perfect bit of pats dale unwanted at six weeks,I took him,one best things I did.
    Go for it

  2. lungs sleep

    thanks for sharing this information.

  3. ESA Doctors

    Pets can provide so much more than companionship for those that suffer from mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Having a dog forces a person suffering from depression a reason to get up and go outside. The pet allows a person to think about the wellbeing of another living being and gets them out of their own head. We have seen an increase in the requests for emotional support animals and/or therapy pets because the positive effects are being reported and shared. At ESA Doctors, we provide those that need an ESA a way to connect with a licensed mental health professional that will evaluate their need for an emotional support animal. Thank you for shining a light on the positive effects of assistance animals.

  4. ESA Doctors

    Pets can provide so much more than companionship for those that suffer from mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Having a dog forces a person suffering from depression a reason to get up and go outside. The pet allows a person to think about the wellbeing of another living being and gets them out of their own head. We have seen an increase in the requests for emotional support animals and/or therapy pets because the positive effects are being reported and shared. At esadoctors, we provide those that need an ESA a way to connect with a licensed mental health professional that will evaluate their need for an emotional support animal. Thank you for shining a light on the positive effects of assistance animals.

  5. Sapporo

    i have a husky male and need a therapist

  6. Rachel

    I’m a therapist and have a couple of clients that I see at my home rather than at my office, as soon as they settle in the therapy chair my ragsoll cat joins them and there she stays until they leave, both clients have commented on how much of a positive impact this has on them (neither are able to have pets in their own homes). We call her the therapy cat & interesting to watch her as she is a very busy young cat, though as soon as she sits with these clients she settles down to a very relaxed state and literally does not leave their laps until the session finishes. I am able to witness the positive impact this has on their mood and outlook.

  7. Elijah

    Awesome dog and great article.