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What is Animal-Assisted Therapy? A Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy Podcast Episode.


What is Animal-Assisted Therapy? A Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy Podcast Episode.

All of us have heard of dog therapy, therapy animals and a wide range of different examples of psychotherapy that involve animals. As a clinical psychology graduate, I have to admit I am very unsure of these therapies, how these therapies work and their effectiveness. Yet until now, I have never learnt about these therapies in any great depth. Therefore, in this clinical psychology episode, you’ll learn about what is animal-assisted therapy, how does it work and what can be it used for. If you enjoy learning about therapy, clinical psychology and mental health then you’ll enjoy today’s episode for sure.


This podcast episode has been sponsored by Working With Children And Young People: A Guide To Clinical Psychology, Mental Health and Psychotherapy. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also available as an AI-narrated audiobook from selected audiobook platforms and library systems. For example, Kobo, Spotify, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, Overdrive, Baker and Taylor and Bibliotheca.


What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy is a type of psychological therapy that involves different animals. For example, dogs, cats, birds and horses and incorporates these animals into a client’s treatment plan. Then the therapist, client and animal work together to complete therapeutic activities outlined in the treatment plan, with these activities having defined goals to help the client reach the therapeutic outcomes they desire.


Interestingly, animal-assisted therapy can take many forms depending on the client, the therapy’s goals and the animal. As well as this therapy isn’t actually used as an alternative to traditional therapy, because at times this can enhance or complement traditional therapies.


Personally, I cannot get my head around using animals in therapy but this is why the next section of the episode is important for our understanding.


How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work?

Interestingly enough, the idea behind animal-assisted therapy is that there is a bond between people and animals. This is something I can fully support because I have seen this from dog and cat lovers and owners, and other pet owners love their pets like they would another human. People seriously love their animals, so this is a logical idea.


This works because animals can provide people with a sense of safety or comfort or calm as well as they can divert attention away from a stressful situation.


In addition, animals are useful for combating loneliness and they can boost social support too. On the day of writing this blog post, I was working at my university as a Student Ambassador on an applicant day, and this mother had brought her daughter and her dog. And the mother was one of the most popular people at the applicant day, because lots of people wanted to interact with her. Therefore, animals are a source of social support and interaction because the client interacts with the animal itself, and other people interact with the client because of the animal.


Also, animals can make people get more physical activity than they would normally and we know the mental health benefits of physical activity. For example, a dog owner having to go on walks with their dog in fresh air could have a positive impact on their mental health.


As a result, supporters of animal-assisted therapy say that animal-assisted therapy works because it gets a client to develop a bond with an animal. Then this helps clients to develop an increased sense of trust, self-worth and stabilised emotions. As well as it improves their social skills, self-regulation and communication skills.


Personally, I have some thoughts on this explanation of how it works. Firstly, I can fully understand how this could work because I can understand how an animal liking a client and wanting to be with a client, could increase those feelings of trust and self-worth. As well as the increased physical activity and improved communication and social skills that the client gets to practice by people wanting to stroke the dog or something. That would be useful.


However, if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a long time then you know I am a fan of cognitive behavioural approaches because they aren’t perfect but they are really good, really well-researched and really effective. Therefore, if we look at animal-assisted therapy alone then how does this therapy help to change the client’s faulty thinking patterns? How does animal therapy and a bond with an animal help the client to realise any cognitive biases they have? And leaning towards humanistic approaches here, how does a bond with an animal help a client to realise they have all the answers they need to their mental health difficulties?


Moreover, how does an animal help with cognitive restructuring? As well as to a lesser extent, how could a bond with an animal help behavioural activation as much as traditional therapy?

Of course, they are massively generalised questions that are not right for every single client.

But I used them they highlight several key points about animal-assisted therapy and the issues of how it is meant to work.


When Is Animal-Assisted Therapy Used?

Building upon its flaws in how it is meant to work, there are a few more issues in when this therapy is used but we will talk more about that in a moment.


As a result, animal-assisted therapy can be used for groups or individuals with a wide range of mental health difficulties or conditions. For example, animal-assisted therapy can be useful for people with autism, ADHD, stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, emotional and behavioural problems in children, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and some medical conditions.


In addition, I can see how this therapy could be useful for these conditions and difficulties. For example, autism results in people having difficulties with human interactions and animals are a lot easier than humans to deal with (believe me, I know) so I suppose helping an autistic person bond with an animal could be a useful way to teach them skills to use with humans.


However, anxiety and depression are still two conditions I don’t understand with animal-assisted therapy. Especially, when we take the therapeutic orientation that cognitive-behavioural approaches employ and here’s a useful extract of what an anxiety disorder is made up of from CBT For Anxiety:


“There’s a cognitive component relating to a person’s unrealistic thoughts about their fear of loss of control and how they exaggerate the danger. Then there is an emotional component too that focuses on how the disorder causes a person’s terror, irritability and panic.


Furthermore, an anxiety disorder has a physical component that is responsible for a person’s activation of their hormonal system and sympathetic nervous system resulting in their flight-or-fight response to be activated. This is also the same component causing heart palliations and sweating. As well as there’s the behavioural factor of the disorder that causes an anxious person to change their behaviour like developing maladaptive coping mechanisms, like avoiding the source of their anxiety.”


I bring this up because CBT has to deal with these four areas of anxiety as part of the treatment. I do not understand how animal-assisted therapy deals with the cognitive component because if the therapy uses animals as a source of comfort. Then I argue with a safety behaviour, a behaviour that we believe is helpful but it isn’t in the long-term because we think the only reason why horrible things did not happen is because of the safety behaviour. I argue that making a client believe a dog or other animal is the reason why they aren’t anxious in the presence of a stimulus is a safety behaviour. Since if you take the dog away then the client might believe horrible things will happen because the animal isn’t there to support them.


That’s just one area of anxiety that I do not believe animal-assisted therapy explains very well.

I would explain more but I am aware of the length of this podcast episode if I did that.


Effectiveness Of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Another two issues with this type of psychotherapy is that the therapy isn’t good for people who are scared, don’t like or allergic to animals.


As well as there is research showing animal-assisted therapy can help a lot of people, but its effectiveness is sort of questionable. The reason for this is because the existing clinical trials are methodologically flawed according to research. Check the references at the button of the page to learn more. Therefore, better research studies are needed to truly assess how effective this therapy is for clients.


What Should Someone Expect In Animal-Assisted Therapy?

When it comes to animal-assisted therapy, a client can expect to work with some kind of animal. It might be a cat, dog or another pet and this pet can be kept at home or it can be with you throughout the day for emotional support. Or a client’s therapy might involve learning to care and ride for a therapy horse.


It all depends on the type of animal therapy a client goes for.


Afterwards, a client and their therapist could talk about the animal whilst the client is working with them, or the two might set aside time to talk about the client’s experiences.


I flat out do NOT have an issue with animal-assisted therapy happening in a community centre or setting like a school, hospital, nursing home and rehabilitation centre. Due to these settings because they are critical mental health settings. Yet I am very iffy about these settings when it comes to animal-assisted therapy because a qualified psychotherapist might not be used instead a volunteer might deliver the therapy. Of course, this volunteer would be trained.

Also, it is important to note Brief Psychological Interventions are also delivered by trained volunteers and they’re effective.


However, my problem is still similar to the problem that fully qualified clinical psychologists have with BPIs. Psychologists train for years and years to deliver highly effective psychological interventions and then some volunteers get trained up to do our work for us in a much, much shorter space of time. Honestly, if it works, it works and as long as it helps our clients I support it. But it is just annoying that we have to train for years and years and there are ways for other people to get trained in psychological interventions in a shorter time.


I remember that conversation and criticism in my BPI lecture very well, because BPIs are good and needed but I can see the argument from fully qualified psychologists.


And yes I know Brief Psychology Interventions are different to animal-assisted therapies, but still.


Clinical Psychology Conclusion

Originally, I picked animal-assisted therapy because I thought this podcast episode would be shorter but it turns out I’m in a critical-thinking type of mood and there is a lot to unpack here. Personally, I am not totally against animal-assisted therapy because it helps some people, but I will need a lot more high-quality studies before I could ever call myself a supporter of this therapy.


I think the evidence and theoretical basis of this therapy are questionable at times. And as much as I sort of want a dog, I actually really do, I don’t think I’m enough of an animal person that I would want to spend my days working with animals in psychological therapy. I prefer traditional therapies, like cognitive behavioural therapy, and I enjoy drawing on systemic and humanistic approaches too at times.


Therefore, just as a reminder, animal-assisted therapy is a type of psychological therapy that involves different animals. For example, dogs, cats, birds and horses and incorporates these animals into a client’s treatment plan. Then the therapist, client and animal work together to complete therapeutic activities outlined in the treatment plan, with these activities having defined goals to help the client reach the therapeutic outcomes they desire.


Finally, if animal-assisted therapy works for particular clients then that is brilliant and I wish those people all the best of luck. But personally, I’ll be sticking with therapies that have a strong research base and do not use animals in a therapeutic setting. That’s just my personal taste but if you like the sound of animal therapies then go for it. Life is way too short not to do what you love.


So if you love animals and working with them then go and investigate animal-assisted therapy. You never know how you might be able to use them to help a client decrease their psychological distress, improve their life and make them smile.

 

If you want to learn more, please check out:


Working With Children And Young People: A Guide To Clinical Psychology, Mental Health and Psychotherapy. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also available as an AI-narrated audiobook from selected audiobook platforms and library systems. For example, Kobo, Spotify, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, Overdrive, Baker and Taylor and Bibliotheca.



Have a great day.


Clinical Psychology References

Anestis, M. D., Anestis, J. C., Zawilinski, L. L., Hopkins, T. A., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2014). Equine‐related treatments for mental disorders lack empirical support: A systematic review of empirical investigations. Journal of Clinical Psychology,70, (12), 1115-1132.


Beck, A. M., & Katcher, A. H. (1984). A new look at pet-facilitated therapy. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 184(4), 414-421.


Charry-Sánchez, J.D., et al. Animal-assisted therapy in adults: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. August 2018; Volume 32:169-180.


Chur-Hansen, A., McArthur, M., Winefield, H., Hanieh, E., & Hazel, S. (2014). Animal-assisted interventions in children's hospitals: A critical review of the literature. Anthrozoös, 27(1), 5-18


Kamioka H, Okada S, Tsutani K, et al. Effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. April 2014; 22(2):371-390.


Kamioka, H., Okada, S., Tsutani, K., Park, H., Okuizumi, H., Handa, S., Oshio, T., Park, S., Kitayuguchi, J., Abe, T., Honda, T., & Mutoh, Y. (2014). Effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 22(2), 371-390.


Mandrá, P.P. Animal assisted therapy: systematic review of literature. SciELO Brazil. 2019; CoDAS 31 (3).


Marcus, D. The Science Behind Animal-Assisted Therapy. Current Pain and Headache Reports. 2013; volume 17, Article number: 322.


Marino, L. (2012). Construct validity of animal assisted therapy and activities: How important is the animal in AAT? Anthrozoös, 25(Supplement 1), 139-151.


Nimer J., Lundahl B. Animal-assisted therapy: a meta-analysis. Anthrozoos.


Stern, C., & Chur-Hansen, A. (2013). Methodological considerations in designing and evaluating animal-assisted interventions. Animals, 3(1), 127-141



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