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Animal-assisted therapy: A "new" old technique

Therapy dog Maynard Nauta cuddles with kids at Christel House Academy West in Indianapolis.

About the author:

Jill H. Stout works with people who have physical and developmental disabilities. She is an Indianapolis native who now lives in North Carolina. Contact her at

Psychologists and scientists have found out in the last 60 years what we pet owners have known forever: Pets contribute to good mental health.

In my 30s and 40s, when my bipolar disorder was raging and I was often barely functional, caring for my cats was sometimes the only chore I managed to complete in a given day. My children could get themselves something to eat or find some respite from my moods with their dad, but the kitties had to be fed and watered. They stayed with me when I was up or down, depressed or manic, deeply sad or paralyzingly elated.

Many of you know this fact well, from your own pet experiences: Petting or talking to a dog or cat or other pet brings a special kind of comfort and contentment. Psychotherapists began noting this in scientific literature in the late ‘60s and have continued to study animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and animal-assisted activities (AAA) in the intervening years. They consider the use of AAT part of the marriage of conventional medicine and complementary and alternative medicine, known as integrative medicine. Most studies show it is effective in treating a multitude of medical and psychological illnesses.

Therapy dogs, and sometimes cats, have been used in hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other facilities to help people de-stress. Equine therapy also has become popular. These visits are done by trained handlers who often own the comfort animals.

Another form of animal-assisted therapy can be done privately with psychotherapists. The psychotherapists don’t work with the animals so much as the people. The handlers are usually the owners of the animals and have extensive training. The sessions are usually about 20 minutes long, once or twice a week, and involve petting, brushing, and talking to the animals. AAA is more about comforting those with stress and anxiety and is often shorter term.

Horses visit a patient at ASC Rosegate Senior Care.

Medical reasons for using AAT include depression, schizophrenia, dementia, fibromyalgia, cancer, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, pregnancy stress, and pre- and post-operative pain and anxiety.

Did you know that some of the first animal-assisted therapists include Dr. Sigmund Freud and nurse Florence Nightingale?

The Delta Society, founded in 1977, is a national membership organization whose mission is to improve human health through service and therapy animals. The Delta Society defines AAT as “a goal-directed intervention that utilizes the human-animal bond as an integral part of the treatment process,” guided by “animals and handlers/owners (who) are screened and trained to meet specific criteria and work with professionals who help set therapeutic goals” AAA is non-professionals guiding the clients’ goal-directed activities toward better quality of life, but not necessarily specifically evaluated for or prescribed by professional caregivers.

Those of us with pets of our own know the warm and loving relationship that is possible between us and our “fur babies.” Even people with fish feel calmer after watching the serene landscape of an aquarium (note the many medical and dental offices with large fish tanks). Relaxation as well as relief of anxiety due to illness and poor access to medical care — even the fears and hardships of homelessness — have been shown to be relieved by pet companionship.

But then, we all knew that!

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