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The Efficacy of Animal-assisted Therapy in Reducing Addictive Behaviors in Psychiatric Patients

Updated on October 14, 2014

Many studies exist on the efficacy of animal-based therapy in reducing maladaptive coping mechanisms in patients suffering from compulsive and addictive behaviors as are commonly found in alcoholism, eating disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorder. In fact, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been used by a small sub-set of treatment centers and therapists since the 1970’s, especially equine-assisted therapy, although many treatment professionals are implementing companion animals such as dogs and cats; “pocket pets” like like rats and guinea pigs; and even more unusual animals like dolphins [1,3,4].

The author with Big Cat, her main animal support system!
The author with Big Cat, her main animal support system!

The health benefits of companion animals have been indicated in a variety of studies, including significant decreases in blood pressure, depression, and anxiety, as well as improvements in confidence and communication [2,3,5]. For example, one researcher found a significant increase in serum levels of neurotransmitters associated with lowered blood pressure, as well as an increase in endorphins, which cause elevated mood; oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “bonding chemical”; and even dopamine, low levels of which have long been correlated with several mental illnesses [5,6].

Additionally, the implementation of animals in a treatment environment has been correlated with a decrease in negative behaviors and an increase in positive behaviors by many studies, as well [5,7]. For example, two separate studies found an increase in communication between patient and treatment provider in situations in which a therapy animal present, as well as an increase in body image and self-confidence [7,8]. Further studies have indicated an increase in body confidence in equine-assisted therapy in which a patient becomes more attuned to the movements of his or her body while riding horseback [2].

The author with a very fluffy friend, Big Cat.
The author with a very fluffy friend, Big Cat.

Therefore, many treatment professionals think the introduction and utilization of trained animals within a treatment environment would be prudent and beneficial to patients struggling with destructive coping mechanisms considering the positive effects on many patients in the presence of a trained therapy animal. While animal-assisted therapy cannot treat psychiatric illnesses alone, the benefits of having a trained therapy animal within a treatment environment can often enhance the effects of the treatment itself. In summary, the addition of a trained therapy animal to the treatment plan of a psychiatric patient can result in positive physiologic effects such a decrease in blood pressure and stress hormones as a result of decreased levels of depression and anxiety, as well as an increase in communication and self-confidence, all of which are important factors in psychiatric treatment for a variety of mental illnesses.

Big Cat with his "frenemy," Big Black
Big Cat with his "frenemy," Big Black

Additional Reading:

Animal-assisted Therapy: Is There Room in the Treatment Plan? (Christine Hawkins via The Exceptional Parent 42(8): September 2012)

Dog as Co-therapist in Eating Disorder Recovery (Joanna Poppink, MFT via Eating Disorder Recovery)

The Practice and Ethics of Animal-assisted Therapy with Children and Young People: Is It Enough That We Don’t Eat Our Co-workers? (Evans, N. and Gray, C. via British Journal of Social Work 2011)

References:

[1] Cantin A. and Marshall-Lucette S. 2011. Examining the literature on the efficacy of equined assisted therapy for people with mental health and behavioral disorders. Mental Health and Learning Disabilities Research and Practice: 51 - 61.

[2]. Equine-facilitated counselling and women with eating disorders: articulating bodily experiences by Sharpe, Hillary Ph.D., University of Calgary Division of Applied Psychology, 2013. 214 pages.

[3] Palley et al. 2010. Mainstreaming animal-assisted therapy. Institute for Laboratory Animal Research 51(3): 199 - 209.

[4] Schenk et al. 2009. Animal-assisted therapy with dolphins in patients with eating disorders. Munchen: Ludiwg-Maximilians Universitat. 9 pages.

[5] Chandler, K. 2012. ”Research in Animal Assisted Counseling and Related Areas” in Animal Assisted Therapy, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Rutledge. 424 pages.

[6] Odendaal, J. S. J. 2000. Animal-assisted therapy — magic or medicine? Journal of Psychosomatic Research 49(4): 275 - 280.

[7] Campbell-Begg, Teri. 2000. A case study using animal-assisted therapy to promote abstinence in a group of individuals who are recovering from chemical addictions. Journal of Addictions Nurisng 12(1): 31 - 35.

[8] Marr et al. 2000. Animal-assisted therapy in psychiatric rehabilitation. A Multidisciplnary Journal of the Interactions Between Humans and Animals 13(1): 43 - 47.

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