Animal Assisted Psychotherapy

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

We are a society of pet lovers. But, in healthcare, we have now moved beyond the incorporation of animals in our homes and worlds as pets, and into the modality of pets as paratherapists. Animals of all varieties are now being integrated into the treatment room (though sometimes the “room” is out of doors!).Animal assisted therapy

While much of the research on animal assisted therapy is qualitative and full of personal description, researchers are now beginning to study the use of animals in a quantitative manner. Research with animals as psychotherapy assistants suggests that humans show signs of reduced stress, fear and anxiety, and increased calmness and comfort when the right animal is present. Animal assisted therapy, as a complementary therapy, has been beneficial to both children and adults in individual and group settings.

Myths and facts about the integration of animals into the psychotherapeutic environment:

Myth: A cat can never attend a psychotherapy session.

  • An animal, such as a cat, can help to alleviate anxiety and offer personal nurturance in a way a therapist alone can not.

Myth: Therapy always takes place in an office, unless you are doing a wilderness adventure program.

  • Psychotherapy sessions with various animals such as dogs, horses or even alpaca can be held outside on walks, in parks, or on farms.

Myth: A client’s pet is an appropriate animal to bring into sessions.

  • All animals used within a psychotherapeutic domain should be carefully screened by the therapist, a veterinarian, and possibly a trainer or handler.

Myth: Animal assisted therapy only happens when an animal is brought into a hospital or home for elders.

  • Animals have been involved in many settings such as private practice offices, county jails, schools, and even universities.

Myth: Animals can’t possibly have an impact on a client during a session.

  • It has been noted that when a client engages in sessions with an animal, the dynamics change because the client interacts as much with the animal as with the therapist.

Myth: Animal assisted therapy is a relatively new idea.

  • Animals have been used to assist patients in European hospitals for hundreds of years.

Myth: Animals know what you are thinking

  • While an animal is no more a mind reader than a therapist, animals often have a keen sense of intuitive emotional awareness beyond the level that many humans can offer.

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