Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been around for some time now, but we are only recently (in the last 10 years or so) seeing it branch out to document illnesses such as anxiety that are common after a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or spinal cord injury (SCI). This therapy involves the use of a trained animal to assist and comfort the patient. The most common animals used are dogs, but there have been cases of monkeys, cats, horses, fish, birds, dolphins and even cows.
Animal therapy trials have been done on patients with anxiety, paralysis, dementia, depression, hospice needs, in correction facilities and more. For those with a SCI that limits their mobility, animal interaction has been found to alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation, both of which are often noted results if a SCI. According to a 2000 study in theJournal of Psychosomatic Research neurochemicals associated with a decrease in blood pressure increased after positive interactions between humans and dogs, another benefit in a situation that can cause a great deal of stress for the recovering patient. In addition, organizations such as the Delta Society have done their own research on the benefits of human/animal interaction as well as compiled a list of articles that substantiate this idea.
Another pet-positive article describes the link between coping with change and transition and having a pet. Learning to live with a disability such as caused by a TBI or SCI is a traumatic and often overwhelming process. The authors found that within six months of receiving a service dog participants demonstrated an increase in self-esteem, psychological well-being, community integration and also a 70 percent decrease in home aide needs. That’s a pretty significant finding.
Offering a counter-view, the Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy quotes a handful of studies (pg. 41) that speculate on other reasons for the benefits, such as increased exercise or socializing through walking a dog. Aubrey H. Fine, the author, goes on to point out how few of the studies performed can be concretely validated. To create a proper study, those receiving AAT would need to be taken off of any medication while a placebo group would have to be created. How can you manufacture a placebo for a pet’s affection? Fine makes a good point, but as many will attest to with or without studies offering proof, animals have added value to numerous lives. If you have pet therapy experiences to share, we would enjoy hearing about them!