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Pros and Cons of Animal-Assisted Therapy

american addiction centers photo
December 18, 2020

Most of us would agree that the presence of an animal can improve one’s mood and relieve feelings of loneliness. But when it comes to treating serious mental health issues such as addiction and co-occurring psychological disorders, even the most ardent animal lovers might be skeptical about how helpful our four-legged friends can be.

Nevertheless, animal-assisted therapy has become extremely popular, with many highly regarded addiction treatment facilities employing its use.

But how effective is animal-assisted therapy, really? And if it is successful, are there any drawbacks to it?woman riding horse as part of animal-assisted therapy

What is Alternative Therapy and How Can Animals Help?

By now, you’ve probably heard of “alternative therapy methods,” an array of different approaches to mental health treatment outside the realm of standard, evidence-based techniques. The most popular forms of alternative therapy include music therapy, art therapy, yoga therapy, and, of course, animal-assisted therapy.

Alternative therapies are methods that haven’t been (or have yet to be) proven effective through multiple peer-reviewed studies the way common evidence-based approaches have been. This doesn’t mean they aren’t helpful, however.

In many cases, there simply has yet to be adequate studies on all the different forms of alternative therapy. Also, many people find that alternative therapies provide some intangible benefits. Most often, alternative therapy methods are commonly used in conjunction with evidence-based approaches.

Animal-assisted therapy has been around for quite a while. Florence Nightingale actually popularized the concept of pet therapy over a century ago, after discovering chronically ill patients responded positively to the presence of animals. Some of these positive effects can even be measured: Studies on patients participating in pet therapy have yielded some impressive results, including:

  • Reduction in blood pressure.
  • Increase in endorphins.
  • Decrease in stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine.

The calming effect of having an animal (such as a well-trained dog) present during therapy for treating addiction often helps patients feel more comfortable communicating about emotions and concerns that are embarrassing or upsetting. But it goes even deeper than that and, believe it or not, different animals may have different therapeutic benefits.

Different Forms of Animal-Assisted Therapy and Their Benefits

Forms of animal-assisted therapy include:

  • Pet therapy. Perhaps the simplest and most common form of animal-assisted therapy, pet therapy involves volunteers bringing their well-trained pets to various facilities, where they provide comfort, relieve stress, and cheer people up. These pets are a common sight at hospitals and schools. When used in addiction therapy, these animals can teach patients valuable lessons about boundaries and self-esteem.
  • Canine therapy. Canine therapy, where patients care for and interact with a dog, is designed to instill “transferrable attachment” to the patient. The relationship tools these patients learn through canine therapy can be transferred to human relationships, helping patients rebuild strong social networks, which is vital to long-term sobriety.
  • Equine (Horse-Assisted) Therapy. Equine therapy is becoming increasingly popular and is being offered at more and more drug and alcohol recovery centers. With horse-assisted therapy, patients learn the basics of horse-handling and care, before moving on to recreational activities and goal-oriented exercises. Patients that participate in equine therapy report benefits from the change of focus and environment, and the sense of purpose and responsibility provided by caring for the horses.
  • Dolphin-Assisted Psychotherapy. With dolphin-assisted addiction therapy, small groups of patients are taken diving to swim with a pod of dolphins. Proponents of dolphin-assisted therapy assert that the swimming itself is an exercise in surrender to a greater force, and that the dolphins teach the patients some valuable lessons about themselves. For example, one patient was forced to examine his tendency to chase away the things he wants, while others have enjoyed the profound catharsis of being “accepted” by the pod.
  • Wolfdog and Wolf-Assisted Therapy. Wolf-assisted therapy is a new concept in treating substance use disorder involves caring for the animals, taking them on hikes through the woods, and learning about trust and self-awareness.

Cons of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Much of the research on animal-assisted therapy has been fairly low in quality, meaning that when people tout the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, they are mostly relying on anecdotal evidence to make their claims. This isn’t a huge concern, however, provided the treatment facility uses animal-assisted therapy in addition to standard, evidence-based practices.

Another potential drawback is the cost and resources animal-assisted therapy requires. It’s unrealistic for many treatment centers to provide many forms of animal-assisted therapy, and the facilities that do many be out of the price range for potential patients.

The final concern is one of safety and well-being for the animals and people. This risk is very low when dealing with domesticated animals like horses and dogs; however, there have been several reports of injuries of people participating in dolphin-assisted therapy. Some researchers have also asserted that dolphin-assisted therapy unnecessarily stresses the animals and encourages captive breeding.

Popular treatment facilities that employ wolf-assisted therapy have largely avoided criticism in regard to animal well-being by contracting with certain conservation centers. The wolves and wolfdogs in these facilities had been given up by people who made the poor decision to adopt these animals and realized their mistake. Wolf-assisted therapy is still a very new concept, so this concern may become more pressing if an increasing number of facilities adopt the method.

Conclusionman with dog during animal-assisted therapy

Ultimately, treatment for substance use disorder works best when it is tailored to the needs of the patient. Effective treatment facilities recognize this and customize an approach to treat each individual, at the same time utilizing evidence-based therapeutic approaches.

As long as the patient and animals are safe, and alternative therapy is provided as supplemental treatment—not in lieu of evidence-based approaches—it seems that the potential pros of animal-assisted therapy outweigh the cons.

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