Animal Assisted Therapy For PTSD

  • Dr Maria Weissenbruch Doctor (Ph.D.), Cell and Developmental Biology, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany
  • Regina Lopes Senior Nursing Assistant, Health and Social Care, The Open University

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Overview

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a non-verbal therapy currently being utilised as a complementary therapy form in trauma interventions. It harnesses the animal-human bond and has shown great promise as an adjuvant treatment of mental health challenges. 

AAT’s novel approach to treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), harnesses the therapeutic power of animals to support people suffering from trauma in their healing journey. animals provide a sense of safety and security while reducing feelings of isolation, and promoting emotional expression. 

In this article, we delve into the biological, psychological, and emotional mechanisms underlying AAT’s effectiveness. From the neurobiological effects of interacting with animals to the practical considerations of implementation, we uncover the transformative potential of AAT in alleviating PTSD symptoms and fostering resilience. By highlighting the benefits of AAT and providing practical guidance on accessing therapy, this overview empowers readers to make informed choices about their mental health care journey.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT)

What is it?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a powerful therapeutic approach that harnesses the unique bond between humans and animals to help people navigate mental health challenges. It involves bringing specially trained animals, like dogs, cats, horses, and even smaller animals like rabbits and guinea pigs, into treatment to provide comfort, support, and companionship, with the therapeutic goal of alleviating stress, enhancing mental and emotional balance and improving overall health. Led by trained therapists or healthcare professionals, AAT sessions are carefully structured to improve a person’s physical, emotional, and social well-being.

How is it helpful?

Animals in therapy sessions offer numerous benefits. The unconditional companionship and non-judgmental nature of animals give them the remarkable ability to create a sense of safety and trust. This creates a safe and supportive environment for people undergoing therapy, allowing them to lower their defences and engage more openly in the therapeutic process. Additionally, the non-verbal nature of animal interactions can be particularly beneficial for individuals who may struggle with verbal communication, allowing for alternative forms of expression and connection. 

The benefits of AAT for patients with various mental health challenges are multifaceted and include:

  • Improved emotional regulation
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Sense of safety
  • Reduced feelings of loneliness
  • Improved self-worth
  • Better communication
  • Improved physical activity
  • General happiness

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) offers a holistic approach to promoting emotional well-being, social connection, physical activity, and personal growth in patients.1

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Understanding PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental health condition that typically develops after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as combat, natural disaster, or physical violence. 

While it’s normal for people to experience fear and anxiety immediately after such an experience, most people slowly recover over time once the threat has passed. However, in cases where the brain’s “fight or flight response” persists long after the danger has subsided, a person may be diagnosed with PTSD.

Interestingly, PTSD can also manifest in people who have experienced second-hand trauma through witnessing or hearing about others’ trauma experiences.

PTSD affects people of all ages, from children to adults, and certain populations, such as soldiers, firefighters, police officers, refugees, and individuals residing in conflict zones, may be particularly vulnerable.2 Additionally, research suggests that women are more likely to develop PTSD compared to men.

Symptoms of PTSD may include 

  • Fear and anxiety, 
  • Emotional detachment, 
  • Flashbacks, and nightmares, 
  • Difficulty sleeping, and 
  • Irritability and angry outbursts.

Commonly, people suffering from PTSD also experience co-occurring conditions like depression, anxiety disorders, or substance abuse issues.

Traditional treatment of PTSD involves a personalised approach that combines psychotherapy with medication when necessary. 

How animals can help manage PTSD

Despite new therapeutic approaches for treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), many continue to struggle with its symptoms. In recent years, however, Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) has shown promise as a complementary treatment in the management of PTSD, helping patients reclaim a sense of normalcy in their lives. 

AAT taps into the positive impact of animals on human emotions and mental states. Interactions between patients and therapy animals can contribute to the recovery journey by helping patients;

  1. Gain comfort and companionship
  2. Learn valuable coping strategies
  3. Build trust and rapport, and
  4. Develop a sense of empowerment and resilience

Whether it’s the gentle nudge of a therapy dog, the calming presence of a therapy horse, or the soothing interaction with other smaller animals like rabbits and guinea pigs, AAT provides a safe and nurturing environment for people to confront their fears, explore their emotions, and take steps towards healing.

Understanding the mechanisms behind animal-assisted therapy for PTSD

Neurobiological effects of animal-assisted therapy

When humans interact with animals in settings such as Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), it influences brain chemistry, triggering a neurobiological response that leads to the desired therapeutic outcomes. Interacting with animals activates various regions of the brain associated with emotions, bonding, and stress response. This causes the release of neurochemicals like neurotransmitters and neurohormones, which play a crucial role in a person's mood, stress, and overall well-being.

Even brief interactions with animals, lasting as little as a minute during AAT sessions, have been found to trigger the release of oxytocin.3 Oxytocin, often dubbed the “love hormone,” is linked to feelings of trust, security, bonding, connection, and relationship building. Moreover, oxytocin induces physiological changes such as reduced heart rate and breathing, lower blood pressure, and improved sleep. Importantly, elevated levels of oxytocin are associated with decreased levels of cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone, fostering a sense of calmness.4 

Animal interactions also trigger the release of neurotransmitters. AAT can regulate mood, reduce stress, and improve emotional resilience by balancing these neurotransmitters.4 Endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, lead to relaxation and decreased stress levels. Serotonin, the "happiness neurotransmitter," regulates mood and enhances well-being. Dopamine, associated with pleasure, creates a feeling of satisfaction. Norepinephrine, a stress hormone, helps manage the body's response to stress.5 

Psychological benefits of animal-assisted therapy

Animals in therapy play a vital role in facilitating emotional expression and healing. They create a safe space for individuals to process emotions, ranging from joy to vulnerability, with their non-judgmental presence and unconditional acceptance.

Additionally, animals establish emotional connections with humans, fostering empathy and companionship, and understanding beyond verbal communication. Engaging with animals promotes relaxation, reduces anxiety, and enhances well-being through distraction and sensory stimulation. 

Moreover, human-animal interactions promote socialization, empathy, and trust-building skills crucial for healthy relationships and coping with emotional challenges. Overall, Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) harnesses the innate bond between humans and animals to facilitate emotional healing and promote psychological resilience.

Choosing the right animal-assisted therapist

Choosing the right practitioner for Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) requires careful consideration and exploration. It’s crucial to find a therapist who works alongside traditional therapy and understands a patient’s unique concerns and preferences.

Enlist the help of resources and organisations specialising in AAT. They can offer valuable insights and assist in finding certified practitioners or programs suited to specific needs and locations.

When selecting a therapist, consider their experience, treatment approach, and ability to incorporate AAT techniques effectively. In addition, ensure that the therapist meets the following criteria for training and certification in AAT:

  • Formal education in mental health or related fields.
  • Specialised training in Animal-Assisted Therapy techniques.
  • Certification by reputable organisations providing AAT certification.
  • Engagement in continuing education to stay updated on AAT research and developments.
  • Experience and expertise in working with animals and individuals with mental health challenges, particularly PTSD.

What to expect doing AAT sessions?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) sessions for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be tailored to the patient’s needs and unique situation, providing personalised therapy in various settings. The overarching aim is to create a safe and supportive environment conducive to healing and growth. Here are some common scenarios:

  1. Companion Animal at Home: Patients receive emotional support and companionship from a therapy pet in their home, aiding in alleviating anxiety and stress.
  2. Therapy Horse Interaction: Engaging with horses at an equestrian facility promotes relaxation, boosts confidence, and encourages emotional expression for PTSD recovery.1
  3. Therapist Discussions: Exploring the patient’s experiences and emotional impact with the animal in therapy sessions to effectively address PTSD symptoms.
  4. Volunteer Visits: Trained therapy pets visit settings like hospitals, rehab centres, and schools to provide companionship and emotional support.

Cost and accessibility

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) session fees can vary, influenced by factors like the therapist's rates, the type of animal involved, and the length of sessions. 

Cost can be a big concern for many people considering AAT. But there are ways to make it more accessible for those with tighter budgets. Some therapists provide adjustable fees depending on the individual's income level. Also, check if your insurance covers AAT. Some plans do, especially if it's deemed medically necessary for treating mental health conditions. Additionally, check out community programs and nonprofits that often offer AAT at reduced or no cost, especially for those with financial need.

When looking for AAT services, think about accessibility too. Consider the proximity of the therapy provider, ease of commute, and need for special arrangements to ensure access to the therapy.

Summary

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) emerges as a promising adjunctive method for managing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), characterised by symptoms like fear, anxiety, emotional detachment, and sleep disturbances, which can result in long-term suffering if untreated. Central to AAT's success is the human-animal bond, described by the American Veterinary Medical Association, as a dynamic and mutually beneficial connection between humans and animals, where essential behaviours contribute to the health and well-being of both parties.6

AAT's effectiveness is evidenced through its impact on brain chemistry and neurobiological effects, contributing to mood regulation, stress reduction, and emotional resilience. However, the advantages of AAT extend beyond neurobiological mechanisms to include emotional support, companionship, and social connection. The unconditional acceptance and empathy demonstrated by animals play a vital role in fostering emotional healing.

Despite its potential benefits, accessing AAT may present challenges related to cost, finding qualified practitioners, and understanding therapy expectations. Nonetheless, resources and organisations specialising in AAT can assist individuals in navigating these obstacles and finding suitable therapy options.

AAT represents a holistic and empowering approach to PTSD treatment, utilising the innate bond between humans and animals to promote healing, resilience, and overall well-being.

References:

  1. Shelef A, Brafman D, Rosing T, Weizman A, Stryjer R, Barak Y. Equine assisted therapy for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder: a case series study. Mil Med. 2019 Oct 1;184(9–10):394–9.
  2. Altschuler EL. Animal-assisted therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder: lessons from ‘case reports’ in media stories. Mil Med. 2018 Jan 1;183(1–2):11–3.
  3. Petersson M, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Nilsson A, Gustafson LL, Hydbring-Sandberg E, Handlin L. Oxytocin and cortisol levels in dog owners and their dogs are associated with behavioural patterns: an exploratory study. Front Psychol [Internet]. 2017 Oct 13 [cited 2024 Feb 9];8:1796. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5645535/
  4. Odendaal JSJ, Meintjes RA. Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs. Vet J. 2003 May;165(3):296–301.
  5. Beetz A, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Julius H, Kotrschal K. Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Front Psychol [Internet]. 2012 Jul 9 [cited 2024 Feb 9];3:234. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3408111/
  6. Wensley SP. Animal welfare and the human-animal bond: considerations for veterinary faculty, students, and practitioners. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education [Internet]. 2008 Dec [cited 2024 Feb 9];35(4):532–9. Available from: https://jvme.utpjournals.press/doi/10.3138/jvme.35.4.532

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Aditi Shingal

Master of Science (M.Sc.), Biomedical Sciences, The University of Edinburgh

Aditi Shingal is a Science and Health writer with a background in Pharmacy and a Research Masters in Genomics from the University of Edinburgh. She is passionate about health advocacy and crafting compelling scientific narratives for a diverse audience. Aditi strives to navigate the intersection of science, technology, and humanity with care and diligence. Balancing roles as a devoted mother, doting dog parent, and seasoned pharmacist, Aditi’s portfolio extends across various domains including science, health, pets, travel, productivity, and parenting, showcasing her versatility and depth of knowledge.

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