What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can come in many forms, as many animals are good for therapy. Some people find they feel more at peace and are happier with animals around. This is not surprising, as humans have interacted with animals as companions for thousands of years. More recently, animal-assisted therapy, and animal-assisted interventions (AAI), have been used to help people who struggle with mental health concerns. Animals allow patients to forget their troubles either by caring for or bonding with an animal.

What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

AAT is the introduction of animals as a cohesive part of a larger treatment plan. Animals are not responsible for making a person feel a certain way or making a person heal. Rather, the animal’s purpose as part of a treatment plan is to provide comfort, movement, routine, and basic bonding for the person they are helping. Though animals successfully aid in the healing process, AAT is not a form of therapy to be used in isolation.

How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work?

Some animals provide a routine for a person. The animal’s care will be the main focus of the patient’s treatment, allowing for lots of interaction and opportunities to bond. Routine is crucial for the treatment of mental health, and animals need routine care as well. As the needs of the animal combine with the clients’ affection and desire to care for it, clients can begin to establish a routine. 

Animals can provide mood-balancing stability as well. Studies show that a person who likes animals will feel better by simply being in the presence of an animal. Many people observe that animals will attempt to bond and approach humans for positive interaction. A significant source of this positive interaction is seen in dogs, horses, hedgehogs, cats, and more.

Some animals’ care provides movement and motor skills for the patient to work on. For example, dogs and horses require movement to care for. Horses need to be walked or ridden. They also require someone to carry heavy feed and scoop manure out of their stall. Dogs require exercise too, through walking or playing games like fetch or tug-of-war.

What Benefits Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Provide?

Animal-assisted therapy helps ease symptoms of several mental health issues, most commonly depression, anxiety, and trauma-induced co-occurring disorders. Animals benefit people through:

  • Providing routine
  • Distraction from pain, discomfort, or negative feelings
  • Mood stabilization, even boosting serotonin and creating a generally happier time
  • Increase in social interaction and the desire to get out of the house and see the animal
  • Exercise and improved health and mobility
  • A feeling of companionship and decreased feelings of loneliness
  • Decrease fear or worry
  • Motivation to care for the animal, to go out and see the animal, and to give the animal happiness

Common Animals Featured in Animal-Assisted Therapy

There are many animals to choose from for AAT. As a person works with their recovery team, they may find that certain animals are best for certain situations. Animals available for AAT include:

  • Hedgehogs: Hedgehogs are cute, small, and cuddly when they’re in a loving environment. They’re great because they’re small and easy to look after. They are best for those who can take them out of the cage to feed and socialize at least once a day.
  • Dogs: Dogs are fantastic companions who require a lot of love and attention. Dogs are trainable and great for those who like routine and lots of love and attention. They need plenty of exercise so they need someone who can take them out often. 
  • Horses: Horses are great for those who like physical movement, routine, and socializing with animals. They are unique in that they can sense and mirror people’s emotions, so they’re great for learning emotional regulation. Horses are good companions for those who can commit lots of time and care.

Having Your Own Therapy Animal

Animals used for AAP are often not trained as professional therapy animals. For example, a guide dog undergoes specialized training to be used as a guide dog. Most animals that participate in AAP are not trained. It’s important to remember animals are limited on where they can go and what they can do. 

If you are considering a therapy animal, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons. Make sure to work out what kind of animal you and your family can properly care for. If you can’t care for an animal long-term, find a place that allows for visitation with animals. You can even volunteer to provide care. Some facilities have animals that are great for AAT.

Let us Help You

Animal-assisted therapy is a great way for those who suffer from trauma or mental health concerns. They’ll also find companionship, love, and stability with the animal. 

At Havenwood Academy, we offer animal-assisted interventions and therapies as part of our cohesive treatment plan. Our Utah facility features several homes which have a resident hedgehog in each. The hedgehog provides emotional stability, growth, routine, and companionship for the teen girls we help. We only allow the girls to interact with the hedgehog when they are in a state of calm. This allows them the time and space to self-soothe to have that nurturing interaction with the hedgehog. We also offer equine therapy and AAT with dogs to help with emotional regulation. 

If your teen daughter needs help with trauma or mental health concerns, Havenwood Academy may be the place for you. 

Call us today at (435) 586-2500 to talk to our staff about our animal therapy. 


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