There are seven billion people in the world, interacting, driving, arguing, or even fighting in wars every day. Unfortunately, that means there is a lot of room for bad things to happen. Individuals who have a bad thing happen to them are said to have experience a trauma, and that can have serious and lasting mental effects. These can appear in a wide variety of symptoms, including nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance behavior, hyperarousal, and amnesia (National Center for PTSD, 2015). If these symptoms last longer than three months after a trauma, an individual is said to be afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. According to the World Health Organization, almost four percent of the people in the world suffer from PTSD, including ten percent of the US population and almost twenty percent of the United States’ active duty military veterans (Wortman, 2017). Because of the high rate of post-traumatic stress in our military veterans, PTSD has gotten a spot light. There are a lot of different avenues being taken in terms of treatment, but an up and coming method is the use of therapy animals, dubbed animal-assisted therapy, or AAT. According to Registered Nurse Lorraine Ernst, this includes “a scheduled encounter with a certified therapy team consisting of an animal and it’s handler for the purpose of supporting or improving the patients social, emotional, physical, or cognitive functioning” (Ernst, 2014). Currently, you can find certified therapy animals anywhere large numbers of anxious, stressed, ill or recovering people are, and the frequency of such encounters are increasing due to program success of eighty-five percent (Stoffel & Braun, 2006).
Theory Application/Literature Review
The main idea behind the use of animals in therapy for humans suffering from mental health disorders is the ability for human and animal to make a meaningful connection. The concept is not a new one. Florence Nightingale, widely regarded as a key player in the foundation of modern nursing, was the first to discover the potential for AAT in the 1800s. Nightingale kept notes on the reduction of stress and anxiety she observed in residents, both adults and children, of psychiatric institutions when they were allowed the presence of a small pet (Ernst, 2014). In 1860 she expanded on this and noted a positive impact of the presence of pets for those with any chronic medical condition or illness (Stoffel & Braun, 2006). This original concept of the relaxing abilities of animals continues to this day. Research shows that interaction with a friendly pet was reported to have lessened the perception of pain, lowered blood pressure, and released positive endorphins (Roth & Rogers, 2016). This research has been gathered from a variety of places with troubled or ill people including mental health facilities, nursing homes, and hospitals (Stoffel & Braun, 2006).
From the psychanalytic perspective, the benefits of therapy animals has also been a long running theme. In the 1930s, Sigmund Freud often brought his own dog to therapy sessions. He reported that patients would feel comfortable more quickly with the dog present, and even used him to communicate through. This would be a segway into direct communication, and patients would open up much quicker (Ernst, 2014). Other Psychotherapists began to notice the same trend. In the 1960s, Boris Levinson managed to communicate with a previously non-verbal nine year old boy when his dog sat with them during their session. After that, he began to see similar results in other cases of children who had trouble communicating (Ernst, 2014). An improvement was also seen more recently in communication for children with autism with exposure to dolphins. The dolphins were shown to increase language skills more effectively than usual procedures (Stoffel & Braun, 2006). Even simple, non-therapy type conversations were improved between anxious individuals. The presence of a couple of certified animals in the rehabilitation center of Sibley Memorial Hospital provided smiles and slower, calmer breathing to a stroke patient. The dog’s handler was able to initiate a quiet conversation with the man who had previously struggled to do so, all while the animal simply rested its head on his leg (Roth & Rogers, 2016). The psychological health benefits from AAT are so widely known, that over fifty percent of psychiatrist and psychologists reported to have recommended the presence of a pet to their patients (Ernst, 2014). These animals can reduce many symptoms that cause people to seek therapy, such as loneliness, poor social skills and communication, anxiety, poor self-confidence, and mood swings.
The benefits of therapy animals didn’t stop there. Reduction of anxiety is present even in cardiovascular health. High stress and anxiety are both risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and the ownership or presence of pets, especially dogs, is related to the increase in survival rate one year after a serious cardiac event. This is likely due to the reduction of those risks. There is also a cognitive benefit as evident in dementia patients. Several symptoms of dementia are agitation, aggression, and depression, and research suggests that intervention with methods such as animal assisted therapy may delay the progression of these symptoms. A ten week trial was conducted in which a group of patients rated similarly on the Dementia Mood Assessment scale, with half being observed as the control, and the other half was supplied with intervention in the form of AAT. The control group experienced an increase in their symptoms, while those supplied with therapy animals showed no change. These results are thought to come about because the animals helped engage patients in social activity (Ernst, 2014).
A major theory behind the observations of the benefits from AAT is the Biophilia Hypothesis. This literally translates to “love of life”, and refers to humans innate need to be connected to nature and other living things (Wortman, 2017). It also fosters the belief that this feeling of a connection to the natural world is crucial to human health. This view implies that humans are more likely to respond to a living organism in a more meaningful way than they would an inanimate object or tool. A relationship between human and animals, plants, landscapes, and wilderness fall under the scope of this hypothesis, and as such has not only given further backing and ground to animal assisted therapy, but also has given rise to things such as wildlife and adventure therapy, or nature and horticulture therapy (Wortman, 2017). The main theory behind all of these treatment paths is the correlation between health and that drive for connection to the world, to life, and to something greater than oneself.
Approaches to Trauma Intervention and Prevention
One approach that has recently been used to try and aid those suffering from PTSD is establishing a relationship between them, and a rescued harbor seal. Caring for the seals provides a meaningful connection and a relationship to form between animal and man, and the individual can see their own positive effect on the seal while feeling it in their daily lives. This encourages them to continue with the program, and gives them a sense of biophilia (Wortman, 2017). It offers those who have withdrawn from much of the world not only a meaningful connection, but also the chance to feel like they are part of something much bigger than themselves. The closer they become to the animal in their care, the more happiness they gain from participating in the care of the seal, and that happiness can lead to more and more constructive behavior. According to the American Hospital Association, cycles of behavior are a significant factor in overall human health. The ability of a therapy animal to change behavior of an individual, means the ability of that therapy animal to change the health of that individual.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is of course brought in by a trauma which in itself is not completely preventable, especially not in populations such as military veterans. However, according to Wortman, the neurological connections that dysfunction in PTSD sufferers become more concrete, as with a habit, the more that communication or connection is made within the brain. This means that each time an individual suffers a flashback, or re-experiences the event in any form, their symptoms have the potential to increase. The behaviors associated with their symptoms become more ingrained in their brains just like a habit would be. While the original trauma cannot be completely avoided, this worsening of PTSD symptoms can be. The use of therapy animals such as the rescue seals can begin to form new pathways in the brain that lead to more healthy behavior, and more healthy ways of thinking.
Currently, an emphasis on PTSD has been seen because of the prevalence of symptoms in the population of military veterans, but the most common treatments favor medicinal and prescription sources. While there are drugs out there that have shown great benefit and improvement to certain symptoms of PTSD, less than twenty percent of veterans who are afflicted reported feeling as if they had received adequate treatment (Wortman, 2017). This means that out of the veterans who received treatment, they felt they were better off but not the best they could be with prescription solutions alone. Only one third of veterans that identified as having PTSD received only the minimum number of therapy sessions beyond that. The current methods and approaches to the treatment of PTSD is not quite doing all that it can to help sufferers.
Suggestions for Future Research
There is a lot of research out there on the use and benefits of therapy animals, but I think that a greater emphasis can be put on specific disorders such as PTSD. Throughout the ages, from Florence Nightingale and Sigmund Freud to modern day hospitals and psychiatrists, positive benefits have come from AAT. I think that this can be expanded on by breaking down what activities are being done with an animals, the temperament of the animal, etc. and matching that to the exact symptoms that an individual is facing. It feels like there should be a correlation there. Maybe people who feel social anxiety would benefit from walking a friendly dog through a park. The dog could serve as an ice breaker and make the idea of social interaction feel less daunting. Someone else with nightmares might draw greater benefit from a cuddly cat who lays next to them or on them to provide warmth, comfort and support while they sleep. I think that research breaking down these results and findings into more specific categories would mean the potential to better reach people who are suffering from any mental disorder, but mostly post-traumatic stress by examining symptoms.
I also think that more research should be done on how to partner AAT with prescription medications, because they treat different symptoms and different root causes of those symptoms. Instead of making it a competition to prove which is more affective, and a debate or deliberation on which to be used, I think that a symbiotic relationship between the two should be explored. Most importantly, more people should be made aware of the amazing benefits of animal assisted therapy, because it’s incredible how something so simple and sweet can have such a major, live changing affect.