From familiar household pets such as cats and dogs, to horses and even goats, animal assisted therapy/intervention (AAT/AAI) is becoming an increasingly popular alternative treatment for complex disorders such as major depression and PTSD.
AAT/AAI is a type of therapy or intervention that incorporates the use of animals to treat individuals with various disorders, disabilities or even addiction.
The addition of animals can be used simply to enhance other traditional types of therapy or can be paired with green/ecotherapies such as walking, hiking, gardening etc as an entirely alternative therapy. There has also been work done with veterans who experience PTSD in providing them with service animals, all to very promising results.
Over the last ten years, alternative therapies have been a growing interest in the therapeutic community. From easily accessible alternative therapies such as cold-water immersion groups, as seen in Dorset, England and explored in a blog article on our site, to the fascinating world of psychedelic assisted therapies, this field of research is gaining traction.
- See also: 'The examined life and work of psychoanalysis'
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- See also: 'Rules for living- what is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?'
Innovative new ways to treat people experiencing distress and problems with their mental health no longer resides only in leftfield thinking.
Last year, The Guardian published an article about Yoni Yehuda, an Israeli psychotherapist who had taken an interest in the incorporation of animals in his practice. In the article he noted the usefulness of working with animals and patients in psychotherapy, especially as animals are “non-verbal”.
Many of the complex thought and body processes present in depressive and anxiety disorders and PTSD are difficult to verbalise, so working with animals creates an opportunity for exploring things in a more abstract way.
Professor Marie-Jose Enders-Slegers, president of the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organisations has spoken on the possibilities of AAT/AAI, she said “There are effects, and they are scientifically proven. But many effects are very difficult to prove statistically because they are on an emotional level.” She noted patients are “relaxed…they are peaceful, and they have joy”.
Yehuda, himself has witnessed these benefits first-hand. He names himself as his “first patient”, after experiencing PTSD from serving in the Israeli army.
PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, seems to be one of the disorders that the research into the benefits of AAT/AAI points to the most.
In the treatment of PTSD, there have been promising developments in equine-facilitated therapy. In 2017 a study of young people with PTSD found equine-facilitated psychotherapy to be successful in treating the disorder but noted that this was only particularly successful as additional treatment.
In 2020, a clinical study on the use of equine-facilitated psychotherapy for veterans with PTSD showed promising results for those returning from war, to alleviate symptoms on a short-term basis.
Pet Partners, an organisation that has the aim of raising awareness for AAI, have highlighted that through their successful work in partnering veterans who experience PTSD with service animals, there is room to learn from this and begin to make this kind of therapy available in other ways.
They have suggested that AAI supplied on a less permanent basis, from either volunteer therapy animals, incorporating AAI into therapy sessions, partaking in animal assisted activities such as walking or assisting with animal care as part of a wider therapeutic treatment, could result in some of the same benefits that service animals provide veterans with.
One of the ways around the restricted funding for AAT/AAI, is the presence of independent charities.
We spoke to Hugs Foundation, which provides face to face therapeutic services in one of the 10% most deprived areas in England, about the benefits of AAI, what they do and if they’ve noticed increased interest in the past 5 years in their services.
Hugs Foundation provide a comprehensive range of therapeutic interventions and activities, ranging from: AAI, nature walks, ecotherapy, teambuilding, arts and crafts and even practical skills such as woodworking and horticulture. Their sessions are supervised by two highly qualified members of staff with a combined 25 years of experience, you can find out more about Hugs Foundation and the range of services they provide, here.
When asked about the benefits in the use of animals in a therapeutic setting, their spokesperson commented that “children have been seen to open-up, speak freely and participate in ways not seen before when interacting with animals” and also that equine assisted interventions have resulted in “increasing sensory processing and social skills.”
On specific positive results the spokesperson noted “increases in self-esteem, self-efficacy, social skills, reduced anxiety, depression and emotional and behavioural regulation.”
Reflecting on the success of their last year the spokesperson broke down some impressive feedback and the improvements those accessing their services have reported:
- 100% felt calmer, happier and more confident.
- 100% had more effective communication.
- 67% had improved focus and perseverance.
- 67% learnt new skills.
- 100% had more awareness of the impact of their behaviour on others.
- Gross/fine motor improvement.
- “Looked forward to sessions and found great happiness and confidence from her time there”.
- Mum said “Hugs had a positive impact on behaviour at home”.
- Reintegration at into education.
- No longer having suicidal thoughts or self-harming
On the effects of AAI in treating complex disorders such as PTSD, Hugs Foundation’s spokesperson made a really important point that, the alternative settings in which these kinds of therapies can take place can actually reduce “anxiety and stress, which can be associated with attending counselling” and that it also “reduces any stigma attached to accessing these services in traditional settings.”
Hugs Foundation have experienced a huge increase in the interest in their therapeutic services over the last 5 years, noting an increase in referrals year on year, with no sign of slowing down despite the pandemic. They are now open to take new bookings for September 2021.
Individual approaches such as Jim Naron’s, a Colorado native, have resulted in amazing therapeutic improvements too. Naron, a yoga instructor by profession started hiking with his goat, Brutus after having worked with the animals closely in his yoga sessions.
Naron, who experiences PTSD due to early childhood experiences has described how being around Brutus allows him to be more “mindful” in his responses, an experience many people with PTSD will recognise as being difficult having lived in a hypervigilant state for so long.
The possible benefits of AAT/AAI seem to be far-reaching. As with many new, alternative therapies, definitive data on just how beneficial it is and why is lacking. However, this seems to be a field of study well worth investing time, research and funding in.