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What is Animal Therapy? Benefits for Anxiety, Depression, Autism

Animal therapy has many benefits for anxiety, depression and autism. Learn about them here at HealthyPlace.

Animal therapy involves ownership or interaction with animals for therapeutic or health-related purposes. It is different from animal-assisted treatment because it is unsupervised, and animals may or may not be trained. Anyone can benefit from animal therapy by getting a pet or visiting an animal shelter, and there is no supervision or record of the interactions between animal and person. Let's explore the many advantages of animal therapy and how you can benefit.

What Is Animal Therapy?

Animal therapy is grounded in the concept that spending time with pets and other animals can be beneficial for mental and physical health. Multiple studies have shown that regular contact with animals reduces stress, combats loneliness and helps to alleviate anxiety.

Unlike animal-assisted therapy (which is supervised and monitored by medical professionals), animal therapy has no fixed definition or framework.

Building a therapeutic relationship with an animal is something anyone can do without therapeutic guidance or a structured regime. If you are considering animal therapy to help treat depression, for example, your treatment may involve bringing home a pet, joining a dog-walking group or volunteering at an animal shelter. You should bear in mind, however, that not all animals are "support animals," and if you are unprepared for owning a pet, the experience of caring for an animal can be overwhelming.

Animal therapy can also occur in supervised environments such as hospitals and care homes, where animals visit to assist in the recovery of patients. In these instances, animals are usually trained for this specific purpose. Equine therapy can be either animal-assisted or plain, depending on whether or not the horses have been trained to provide therapy.

Animal Therapy: Who Benefits?

The benefits of animal therapy can be experienced by almost anyone. According to a 2016 survey published by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements, while 75% of participants stated that a friend or family member's mental health had improved after owning a pet.

Animal therapy can be particularly beneficial for those experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD and social isolation. Here are just some of the benefits of animal therapy:

Companionship: Pets are a source of non-verbal companionship, and relationships with animals can be particularly advantageous for people who struggle with social interaction. Pet ownership can ease loneliness in people who find it difficult to interact with others.

Connectedness to nature: Owning an animal often leads to more time in nature, which is considered highly beneficial for human health and wellbeing.

Exercise: Whether it's chasing a cat around your apartment or walking a dog every day, pets can encourage exercise in otherwise sedentary individuals.

Immunity: Evidence from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology suggests that children who are routinely exposed to animals have better immunity and reduced allergies than those who are not.

Animal Therapy for Autism

There are specific benefits involved with animal therapy for autism. The Autism Awareness Centre reports that it is often easier for a person with autism to interact with an animal rather than another human because animal behavior is non-judgmental and non-verbal. Dogs, for example, can serve as bridges that help children with autism communicate with other children and adults.

Maureen Bennie, the founder of the Autism Awareness Centre, states:

“There is more research being published every year on the benefit of animal-assisted intervention and autism. While a pet may not be a good fit for every family, some exposure to animals may be beneficial for a child's development and well-being."

Animal therapy for autism, as with all forms of animal therapy, must be carefully considered, and the welfare of the animals assured. Animals can be hugely beneficial for our happiness and wellbeing, but only if they are comfortable in their environments and interactions.

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2019, August 18). What is Animal Therapy? Benefits for Anxiety, Depression, Autism, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, November 26 from https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/mental-illness-overview/what-is-animal-therapy-benefits-for-anxiety-depression-autism

Last Updated: October 15, 2019
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Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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