Guide dogs and other types of animal assisted intervention for physical disabilities have been around for a long time. But with an increasing understanding of how people experiencing mental illness can be supported, these methods are becoming more commonly used for therapy. Kathryn Eccles, E-Commerce Manager from pet, equestrian, and country store Millbry Hill, explains what Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) is and how it can help people with mental health issues.
AII is the practice of using animals to provide emotional support and assistance to people experiencing mental health problems.
Everyone knows that interacting with animals makes us happier. We often feel calmer if we have a pet or an animal that we see regularly and their unconditional love can help us feel less lonely. So, pets have benefits for everyone - not just those experiencing mental health difficulties.
What are emotional support animals?
Emotional support animals act as companions who provide comfort and support.
They can be pets that live with you or trained animals that occupy or travel to different hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centres, and other live-in treatment facilities, in some cases supporting people living far from home because of a condition or disability.
Some also work alongside occupational therapists and physiotherapists to provide people with emotional support whilst in recovery and rehabilitation. Visiting emotional support animals allow people who can’t look after a pet of their own to benefit from the soothing powers of animals without responsibility of care.
Because emotional support animals are not trained by a registered organisation/charity to provide support doing specific tasks, they have no more legal privileges than another pet.
What are assistance animals?
Assistance animals provide similar companionship to emotional support animals. However, they are also extensively trained by an organisation/charity like Assistance Dogs UK to help with practical tasks.
They must pass an exam to prove they’re obedient, vaccinated, get on well with other animals and new people, and they must be at least one year old. They also have to be trained so that they can fulfill their owner’s requirements by, for example, fetching medication. Guide dogs, who provide support to people with visual impairments, are a type of assistance animal.
It’s illegal for public spaces and taxis to refuse assistance dogs, and they have to make reasonable adjustments for assistance dog owners.
The benefits of AAI
Assistance animals have a huge positive effect on people experiencing mental health challenges. An Australian study published by Frontiers in Veterinary Science suggests they can help people with conditions including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder.
A survey for the British Journal of Nursing indicated that the presence of dogs reduced anxiety in hospital patients, including children, who were waiting for tests and examinations. Studies like these indicate that, as well as providing emotional support, dogs can aid with physical treatments and encourage people to get the care they need.
How to get involved with AAI
If you’re thinking about using assistance animals to treat your patients, contact assistant animal charities or organisations that focus on mental health conditions, rather than just physical disabilities. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, don’t necessarily need any special training. They just have to be well behaved, so most are owner-trained. Although assistance and therapy animals are usually dogs, they can also be cats or other domestic animals.
- See more: Report shows that therapy dogs may reduce risk of self-harm in prisoners
- See more: We can discuss mental health care responses, but leave my personality out of it
Alternatively, if you think your pet would make a good emotional support animal, you can get them assessed and volunteer them for charities such as Pets as Therapy to visit people in need. You will have to take certain steps to make sure they pass, such as clipping their nails and making sure they are clean and well groomed. While assistance dogs have to wear livery supplied by the organisation that they’re with, you’ll have to provide your own leads, collars and harnesses for your pet to become an emotional support animal.
Your pet will have to demonstrate that they are accepting of being stroked and handled, even roughly. They’ll also have to prove that they can take food and treats gently, and that they don’t pull on their lead or jump up. This is so that they don’t startle any patients, which can pose a risk to them and your pet.
The two main types of AAI used in the UK are emotional support animals and assistance animals. You should research which charity is the most appropriate for your needs and request more information if you think your patients would benefit from either type of intervention. Alternatively, consider volunteering your pet to people who might benefit from their company.