Doctor Doolittle liked to talk to the animals, and so should you.
Research shows that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) — regular interaction with animals like dogs, cats and even horses — can help with a variety of emotional issues like depression and anxiety, addiction recovery and grief management.
“In a society of quick fixes, often when individuals spend time with animals they experience what all humans crave — unconditional love and acceptance,” says Dana Giblock, clinical director at The Recovery Village where K9 therapy and equine therapy are utilized weekly. “These then evolve into emotional, physical and spiritual healing events.”
AAT involves interacting with animals for a set time period over several weeks or months. The get-togethers take place either in individual or group settings and can involve anything from petting to giving treats or just hanging out.
How does animal bonding affect people? Research suggests the interaction increases levels of oxytocin — the so-called “love hormone” produced by the brain — which can ease stress and anxiety, as well as boost serotonin production, the feel-good brain chemical, which is why petting an animal is so calming. AAT at Work
AAT is often used in hospitals as a way for patients to cope with the stress and fear of treatments. A study in the January 2015 Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology explored how ATT — in this case therapy dogs — helped 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 who have survived an accident, experienced the death of a loved one, or witnessed a traumatic event like the recent Pulse club shootings. (In fact, Orlando’s Trinity Lutheran Church coordinated with the 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.)
“People may have a hard time opening up in front of others for fear of being judged, but a person is more willing to share their grief by talking to a dog or cat,” says Giblock. “Animals provide a safe harbor, and no matter what you confess to a dog or cat, you know they won’t betray that love.”
While some people may prefer dogs or cats, bonding with any kind of animal you enjoy can be effective, says Giblock. Still, certain animal interaction may be more beneficial at times. For instance, equine therapy tends to be more successful when confronting trust issues.
“If humans are aggressive with their approach or give off negative body language, horses will respond by keeping their distance. It is only when they feel safe that they will engage,” explains Giblock. “In this way, horses can teach humans to be more open.”AAT for Everyone
AAT is not just for those with special needs. It also can help healthy people maintain their active lifestyle by building self-esteem and increasing social activity, says Giblock.
Want to be more active? Find a Fido. A study, published online March 21, 2016 by The Gerontologist, found that dog ownership was associated with an increase in physical health. The reason: Dogs force you to walk more. In fact, research, published online June 16, 2015 by the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, involving almost 7,000 dog owners found that 60 percent met the recommended guideline of 150 minutes of moderate-intense activity per week.
Physicians usually recommend AAT, but you may need to be pro-active and inquire about AAT and how it may complement your treatment and needs. The good thing is you don’t need a prescription to tap into the feel-good effects of AAT. Adopting a dog or cat is one obvious way, or you can volunteer at a local animal shelter, rescue operation or even horse stables, which also introduces you to different types of animals, such as birds and other wildlife.
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. It just might be what the good Doctor Doolittle ordered.