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The Healing Power of Pets in Psychotherapy

March 01, 2011 | 11,332 views
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Elderly Couple with Their Pet DogAt Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado (AATPC), dogs, cats and even horses are used in therapy sessions to help patients sort through their problems.

Per USAToday.com:

"We have found we can reach therapeutic goals much faster by incorporating the animals into the sessions," says Linda Chassman, a therapist for more than two decades who first began using kitty kindness with clients 10 years ago and went on to seek certification in a specialty known as animals and human health."

The presence of an animal helps AATPC therapists build rapport with their patients. According to Chassman, "people are much more willing to get to the issues, especially kids, who, rather than directly confronting something, can speak to or about the animal."

Dr. Becker's Comments:

You might be wondering how the presence of a cat or dog in a counseling office can speed the progress of therapy for some patients.

I mean, it seems obvious animal lovers who are therapy patients would probably be comforted having a dog or cat to pet while they talk about their problems.

But how exactly does that translate to faster breakthroughs in the therapeutic process?

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is the brainchild of Boris Levinson, a psychologist who back in the 1950s discovered purely by accident his dog Jingles was able to engage an autistic child in a way humans had not.

Since the late 1970s, the Delta Society has been the most recognized name in the field of AAT. Dogs are the most frequently used therapy animals, but the Society also trains cats, birds, rabbits, horses, donkeys, llamas and even pigs and snakes in their program.

According to Delta’s research, when people hold and stroke an animal -- or in some cases just see one -- a number of healthful physical and psychological transitions occur, including:

  • Lowered blood pressure
  • A feeling of calm
  • The ability to be more extroverted and verbal
  • Lessened feelings of hostility
  • Decreased loneliness
  • Increased self-esteem
  • The ability to adjust more readily to life changes

How Animals Help in Psychotherapeutic Settings

Susan Lee Bady, a clinical social worker who uses her two cats in her practice, says her pets serve a number of different functions, including:

  • Calming and soothing
  • Facilitating emotional expression
  • Modeling desired behaviors
  • Allowing touching
  • Encouraging spontaneity and fun
  • Responding to emotions
  • Providing unconditional love of the sort never found in human relationships

Bady’s patients report feelings of peacefulness and serenity when they watch the cats cuddle and groom each other. This feeling is enhanced when a cat jumps into a patient’s lap.

Some patients speak more freely while holding or petting one of the cats. Patients who are out of touch or unfamiliar with their emotions are sometimes able to identify and understand them by watching the behavior of the cats.

Similarly, people with blocked emotions can sometimes express themselves by speaking ‘for’ or through the cats.

Patients with trust issues learn to trust Bady by watching her with her cats.

A patient of Bady’s who was having suicidal thoughts was sitting with one of the cats on his lap in the waiting room. When Bady called him for his appointment, she noticed her cat seemed very agitated. She took the cat and the patient into her office. The kitty calmed right down as soon as Bady had him on her own lap. The patient then told Bady of his suicidal thoughts. Bady realized her cat had been affected by her patient’s emotions.

Bady calmed her cat and in the process relaxed herself. In a more relaxed state, she was able to be more effective in helping her patient during the session.

As the patient left her office at the end of his session, he reassured the cat he wasn’t going to harm himself.

Bady’s pets, like all cats, are independent souls and there’s often no rhyme or reason for what they do or when they decide to do it.

This independence and lack of predictability can help an extremely needy or insecure patient cope better with what she perceives as personal slights in her everyday life. If, for example, a patient of Bady’s feels the cats don’t like her because they won’t sit in her lap, Bady can use her reaction to open a discussion with the patient about her high degree of neediness and the problems it might be creating for her.

Other Animal Assisted Psychotherapy Applications

There’s an amazing array of literature available on the different ways animals can and are being used to help children and adults with psychiatric illness, mood disorders, developmental and learning disabilities, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with a wide range of causes, and other mental and emotional challenges.

Aaron Katcher, M.D., a psychiatrist and emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania when he was interviewed for this PsychiatryOnline.org article, points to additional evidence of the success of animal assisted therapy in controlled studies, as follows:

  • Depressed patients had increased socialization and decreased depression.
  • Children with severe ADHD and conduct disorder had decreased aggressive behavior and improved attention.
  • Patients with autism or developmental disabilities had increased socialization and improved attention.
  • Patients with Alzheimer’s disease had improved attention and decreased aggression and anger.

According to Katcher there is also clinical and anecdotal evidence that patients with dissociative disorders and agoraphobia are able to decrease anxiety and increase social skills when they have companion animals.

These patients improved, he suggested:

“Because [humans] evolved solving problems about animals; animals have the power to entrain our attention. And when we are around animals, we become more joyous, communicative, expressive, and calm.”

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