Animal-assisted therapy is a facilitated interaction between a patient and a trained therapy animal. Dogs are most often trained as therapy animals, although cats, horses, rabbits, birds and other animals can provide therapeutic experiences as well. Although this therapy is often used in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and schools, there is an opportunity for it to be brought into primary care settings.
Pediatricians are prime candidates for providing this type of service. There are a variety of ways to add animal-assisted therapy to pediatric offices, from having a trained animal who belongs to someone at the practice onsite all the time, to bringing in a therapy animal and its handler for specific days and times each week.
According to Pet Partners,
The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that positively influences the health and well-being of both. While many of us intuitively understand the benefits of positive interactions with animals in our lives, an emerging body of research is recognizing the impact the human-animal bond can have on individual and community health.
What are the Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy?
According to studies discussed in American Nurse Today, Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAA) promotes:
49% of critically ill pediatric patients experienced a reduction in pain during therapy dog sessions. A study by Sobo and Kassity-Krich on the effectiveness of AAA in pediatric pain management for children after surgery showed that AAA led to lower physical pain, less emotional distress, and happier, calmer patients. The conclusion suggests that AAA is a positive adjunct to traditional pain management in this specific population.
Therapy animals can improve the patient experience in pediatric offices by reducing any anxiety associated with appointments. They can calm a child's nerves during physical exams and provide a welcome distraction during any procedures.
Another study by Cole and colleagues concluded that the presence of trained animals can help lower anxiety, epinephrine and norepinephrine levels, and systolic pulmonary artery pressure. In addition, a qualitative analysis of patient testimonials by Stoffel and Braun identified a common theme of relaxation, calmness, and peace in the data analysis of pediatric patients studied.
Therapy animals improve the mood of patients and their families. According to the same article,
- therapy animals promote a greater increase in mood than when patients just play with toys
- the "touch factor" nurtures patients
- they offer a meaningful experience to children
According to Pet Partners, other animal-assisted therapy benefits are:
- an increase in social behaviors for kids with autism spectrum disorder
- pediatric cancer patients show increased optimism and increased motivation to stick with treatment protocols
What are the Requirements for Therapy Animals?
Not just any animal can be a therapy animal. For example, Pet Partners requires animals to meet certain requirements in order to be associated with them. Pets need to be:
- current on rabies vaccinations
- clean and house trained
- screened for any behavioral issues
- comfortable interacting with strangers
Risk Factors to Consider with Therapy Animals
Although animal-assisted therapy with therapy animals who have undergone thorough training is generally very safe and calming, there is always some level of risk involved. Things to be aware of include:
- patients who may have had traumatic experiences with animals and are afraid
- patients potentially getting bitten or scratched
- patients with allergies
- immunosuppressed patients
If your practice has a high volume of patients who fall into these categories, you may want to only have a therapy animal onsite at certain times, and be mindful of scheduling these patients around that. Alternatively, you may want to have a separate space where patients who do want to interact with the animal can be with it away from the office's common areas.
Therapy Animals Provide an Enhanced Patient Experience
When animal-assisted therapy is integrated into a practice, everyone stands to gain. Patients are the focus, but providers, office staff, and the patients' family members also receive the mental and emotional benefits of being around these animals. As stated in American Nurse Today,
The complementary, low-cost intervention of AAA is patient centered in every way. Skilled therapy dogs intuitively decipher how they can help each patient and act accordingly. The American College of Critical Care Medicine summarizes its view of animal-assisted involvement in patient care: “AAA supports a patient-centered care approach with an optimal environment for healing.