Animal-assisted therapy made its debut in the 1960s in the practice of the American child psychiatrist Boris Levinson. The psychiatrist noticed that his young patients felt more confident and able to communicate when the sessions were conducted with Jingles, Dr. Levinson’s dog. He then conducted a series of studies and tests to understand in more depth the benefits of using animals in therapy work, even though at the time the scientific community did not entirely share his opinion. Boris Levinson documented his years of research in the book Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy and became the pioneer of this therapeutic approach.
Today, animal-assisted therapy is more widely adopted by the scientific community, and continues to spread beyond the US borders. This approach is now used as a complementary treatment for certain pathologies such as Alzheimer’s disease. It is also used to provide therapeutic support for people with physical or mental disabilities, or for elderly people with cognitive loss or motor problems. Now, animals are also being used in prisons, within families in conflict or even in courts of law. Overview of this promising therapeutic approach.
The human-animal relationship, a remedy for body and mind
As the American health consortium UCLA Health points out, the benefits of animal-assisted therapy can be psychological or physical,. On the psychological side, the simple act of petting an animal can have soothing properties and stimulate the production of serotonin. This contact with the animal also allows the patient to reduce the feeling of anxiety, to relax and feel confident, reduce a feeling of loneliness and clearly improves mental stimulation. For example, for people with Alzheimer’s disease, working with an animal helps to promote memory work.
The effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is particularly recognised for certain disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). One major example is that of Equine-assisted therapy, which improves motor function, social skills and self-esteem. From a physiological standpoint, animal-assisted therapy can reduce the need for medication in some patients, reduce physical pain and lower blood pressure in some conditions. In the case of equine-assisted therapy, the horse or pony acts as a mediator. As Laurence Hameury, child psychiatrist, explains, « the horse is less complex to decode than a human. It accepts the child easily, carries it, swings it, rocks it, and transmits sensations. It also has its own needs and can express its will and its disagreement. He has empathy and is quite tolerant of the behavioural peculiarities of autistic children. He in turn triggers empathic reactions in the child and thus promotes emotional bonding and awareness of others. »
Involving the animal in the healing or well-being of a patient is a practice that is not only recognised, but also tried and tested, and is being widely adopted. Animals are now also integrated into care programmes for victims of post-traumatic stress, such as Lol, the first French legal assistance dog, who stands at the side of victims to enable them to speak freely and feel more at ease. Reassuring, accompanying, and soothing: the virtues of animals on humans are endless.
Taking animal-mediated therapy a step further, more and more practitioners are choosing to bring together people suffering from various psychological traumas and animals that have also suffered from traumas. Patients can then often “choose” their animal according to the bond they feel and which is created in the moment.
Through several portraits, the series “The me you can’t see” addresses the issue of mental health and the different methods that exist today to treat different mental disorders. For people who have experienced severe trauma such as the loss of a child, the series takes us to meet Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, founder of the MISS Foundation and the Selah Carefarm. More than 40 abused or abandoned animals have been rescued and are living on this “farm” in Arizona. Alongside the animals, various therapists, psychologists, yoga teachers and other specialists in paramedical approaches work together to help patients to recover and found joy again in the midst of nature, surrounded by animals of all kinds (dogs, cats, horses, sheep, etc.). Over the past 25 years, thousands of bereaved families have experienced the benefits of this therapeutic approach.
Animal assisted therapy version 2.0
A global pandemic? Not a problem. Whether it be associations or health actors, everyone has joined forces to allow patients to continue their therapy assisted by animals,remotely. Since September 2020, the Ottawa hospital in Canada has been offering a programme called, Virtual Pet Therapy, allowing hospital patients to receive visits from an animal, but this time on a tablet. Although it does not replace real contact, the initial results of this 2.0 therapy are encouraging and the Ottawa hospital is even considering developing this programme beyond the health crisis, particularly for patients whose physical condition does not allow them to be in contact with an animal.
Whether it is for its hospital or its university, Stanford has also been keen to maintain the link between the animals on the one hand, and the patients, students and staff on the other, who are used to animal-assisted therapy. By videoconference on Zoom or on Instagram, all means are welcomed to continue to enjoy the benefits of an animal company! In the United States as well, the company PetPartners has found its new home on the social network Facebook, from which it continues to make it possible for animals to meet those who need them, in the face of solitude.
The pandemic did not stop animal-assisted therapy, and in fact brought the human-animal relationship to the forefront, as the isolation of the many lockdowns and the violence of the crisis led to a wave of pet adoption.
Virtual or real, the connections between animals and humans will not stop any time soon and remind us once again of the importance of our relationship to nature and to all the living beings that make it up.
Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 France License.
Photo : jusdevoyage – Unsplash