History of Animal-Assisted Therapy (Pet Therapy Benefits)
Animal-assisted therapy, or pet therapy, falls under the larger umbrella category of animal-assisted interventions (AAIs). AAIs strive to use animals as a means of benefiting a certain group of people in specific ways. In particular, animal-assisted therapy involves a trained professional who incorporates predefined therapeutic goals with therapeutic treatment through interacting with animals. The history of animal-assisted therapy shows how animals help people overcome both physical and emotional turmoil over the centuries.
Pet therapy benefits individuals who suffer from substance use disorders because of the physical and psychological dependence associated with addiction. Animals can provide those struggling with addiction with experiential therapy. Experiential therapy is a form of therapy that can use a wide range of recreational activities, such as role-playing, arts and crafts, music therapy, and pet therapy to reenact and further understand the demise of past relationships.
Through experiential therapy, people can overcome their deepest struggles through the comfort only an animal can provide through experiential therapy. Understanding the history of animal-assisted therapy can help individuals understand pet therapy benefits as a whole.
What Is the History of Animal-Assisted Therapy?
900 B.C. – 800 B.C.
Although the scientific documentation of animal-assisted therapy came centuries later, informal animal-assisted therapies have been around since the time of the ancient Greeks. In the book, Encyclopædia of Human-Animal Relationships: A Global Exploration of Our Connections with Animals, research shows that the ancient Greeks documented the therapeutic effects of animal therapy. For instance, Grecians with severe illnesses would take horseback rides to help with their mental turmoil.
Additionally, ancient Greek temples would sometimes allow dogs to lick the wounds of recuperating worshippers to heal them. Although this didn’t heal wounds any faster, it likely helped with their mental wellbeing. Dogs held an important role in ancient Grecian history; these animals were associated with Asklepios, who had medicinal powers. It’s almost as if ancient Grecians understood the power of dog therapy before any peer-reviewed journals did.
In 9th century Belgium, people in Gheel would use “therapie naturelle” to help people with physical and mental ailments. Gheel residents would learn how to take care of animals, like dogs, to quell both emotional and physical pain.
While “therapies naturelle” didn’t take off across Belgium until much later. Data shows that 86% of AAI programs in Brabant, Belgium haven’t had much of a plan beyond using animals to facilitate their healing process. This may trace back to the 9th-century roots of animal-assisted therapy in Gheel.
17th – 18th Century
While there isn’t too much documentation on pet therapy before the 20th century, the 17th and 18th centuries show how animals were used to promote overall well-being. For example, 17th-century medical books recommend using horseback riding to mitigate the symptoms of low self-esteem, neurological disorders, and severe arthritis.
In the 18th century, an English psychiatric facility enlisted the help of small animals to aid in treatment. This act wasn’t widespread across England and was cutting-edge at the time. This psychiatric facility was founded by none other than the Quaker leader, William Turk, and was known as the Retreat.
Modern History of Animal-Assisted Therapy (20th Century and Beyond)
Modern pet therapy has come a long way since the ancient Grecians. That said, it took a lot of effort to make its way into mainstream therapy. The scientific and medical community were quite skeptical about if animal-assisted therapy was able to help individuals overcome their mental and physical struggles.
In the mid-1940s American Red Cross decided to use animal therapy to help the American Air Force Convalescent Center. These Air Force members were emotionally traumatized by the horrors of War World 2 and needed assistance in returning back to their normal lives. Many of them likely had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which isn’t unheard of for air force members. The center created an animal assistance program to help these shell-shocked individuals overcome their emotional turmoil.
Decades later, one of the first thorough documentations scientifically proved the power of animal healing. A child psychotherapist named Boris Levinson was a pioneer of pet therapy in the 1960s and produced a detailed report of how animals could help troubled children connect with those around them, including those providing treatment. With time, he also wrote The Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy, making him the father of animal-assisted therapy.
In the 1980s, the first animal-assisted programs were developed in which its leaders came up with a strategy and set of rules to train animals for these kinds of programs. Many of these organizations still exist to this day with the same purpose as before: to use the unique bond between animals and humans to help people regain their well-being in multiple ways.
What Kinds of Animals Help Humans?
Research shows that truly any animal can help people overcome both emotional and physical struggles. In fact, Florence Nightingale, who created nursing as we know it, would bring all sorts of small animals to help soldiers regain their health. With that said, certain animals can be especially effective as pet therapists.
Dog therapy is a form of AAI that has deep roots in global history. Dogs are great therapy animals even if someone needs physical therapy. Dog therapy is especially beneficial for those with a mental illness, which happens to co-occur quite frequently with those with a substance use disorder. Canine support animals can bring individuals medication and even water. Typically, the dogs will go through rigorous training before they can become therapy animals.
Cats as Therapy Animals
People might not think of cats as therapy animals outright. Yet, they can be just as therapeutic as any other animal. Professionals will train cats as therapy animals to provide comfort and support to their owners. They might even have special permissions to enter public places where cats are normally not allowed to aid people with a disability.
Equine therapy is the act of using horses to facilitate the healing process. Those interested in equine therapy should know that they don’t have to ride a horse to reap its benefits. This kind of therapy can help individuals feel comforted and supported just by interacting with horses, whether that be grooming or feeding them.
Pet Therapy Benefits
Unfortunately, those suffering from a mental illness or a substance use disorder feel ashamed of their health condition. Clients at addiction treatment facilities often report feeling guilty about how their medical disorder affects their behaviors and those around them. Animals don’t judge people struggling with any kind of physical or mental disability.
Pet therapy can help individuals feel loved and accepted no matter what stage they’re at in their recovery journey. This form of unconditional love can help people get through dark periods in their lives because of the joy animals bring. A pet will never judge its owner whether he or she has a relapse or intense cravings, which is what unconditional love is all about.
Helps Reduce Loneliness
A healthy amount of both scientific and medical literature shows how dangerous loneliness can be. In fact, one study found that elderly people with pets were more likely to live longer than those without pets. Although pets can’t have a conversation with their owners, they still help their owners with feelings of loneliness.
Social support is important to those recovering from an addiction. This social support should come from friends and family, but pets have their special place in helping people with a substance use disorder. Unlike people, pets are always there to comfort their owners, especially when they need it most.
Accountability and Responsibility
When people have pets, they are responsible for them. Pets depend on their owners to eat, get washed, and live in a healthy environment. People with pets end up naturally establishing a routine to take care of their pets and take care of themselves in the process.
Also, having a dog adds another layer of responsibility because they typically need to get walked. This can help individuals be accountable for their pet’s health and their personal health. Going outside and walking can raise morale and stay healthy through exercising more. That’s not to say that any type of animal can’t offer its owner an added sense of responsibility and accountability.
Helps Reduce Stress
Stress management is a crucial part of addiction recovery. Therapists can help individuals find healthy ways to deal with their stress through psychotherapy, but pet therapy helps individuals manage stress without any mental work. Science shows that petting, holding, or cuddling with an animal boosts “feel-good” chemicals, like oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a powerful chemical found in the brain that slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and even partially blocks the effect of cortisol (a stress hormone). It makes sense, then, that cat owners have a 30% less chance of heart issues, according to one study.
The physical touch of a pet can boost the immune system of a person and reduce his or her stress. But interacting with animals extends beyond physically touching them. Research shows that just watching fish can lower blood pressure.
The Key to Recovery Believes In the Power of Pet Therapy
At The Key to Recovery, we strongly believe that comprehensive care combines multiple kinds of therapy. Yes, psychotherapy has its place in addiction therapy. However, so does experiential therapy, like animal-assisted therapy. That’s why we are a pet-friendly addiction treatment facility in Southern California.
Contact us now if you or a loved one wants to find out more about how our programs can help people overcome substance use disorders and maintain it for life.