The positive effects of animal-assisted interventions have been underestimated for a long time; now finally, their contribution is being recognised. Animals are becoming increasingly popular as 'therapists' – in psychiatric treatments, in remedial education, in rehabilitation work in prisons, even as reassurance for students during exams.
Using animals in treatments has many advantages. Research has shown that the presence of animals and/or their direct involvement in treatments have positive effects on people at various levels.
- Physical level: animals promote physical well being, contributing to the normalisation of the cardiovascular system, creating a pleasant feeling in the body, reducing stress, and encouraging more exercise.
- Mental health: animals improve – among other things – the ability to concentrate, the ability to learn new skills and general mental agility.
- Cognitive linguistic level: animals promote involvement in activities, communication skills, language development and contact with the outside world.
- Emotional level: animals soothe the human psyche, reduce the risk of suicide, make people laugh, reduce the feeling of loneliness, and increase self-esteem.
- Social level: animals contribute to learning and improving social skills such as accepting criticism, making compromises, and solving conflicts.
- Motor activity: animals contribute to the promotion of movement, and coordination and improve overall mobility.
These examples represent just a selection of the many benefits which animals provide to humans, and the valuable therapeutic contribution they make.
Animal-assisted interventions in the past
The use of animals in therapy treatments has a long history. Already in the 9th Century, animals were used to help assist the disabled. In 1790 rabbits and chickens were part of therapies devised for mentally ill patients. In 1867 farm animals and horses supported epilepsy patients in the therapies at Bethel in Bielefeld (Germany). In the 1970's therapy dog Skeezer was a permanent resident in a psychiatric hospital for children, and in 1972 a survey by psychotherapist Boris Levinson revealed that one-third of New York psychotherapists included pets in their treatments. The therapeutic value of animals for humans was clearly understood very early on, and now is being given full credence by modern practitioners.