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Harnessing the benefits of animal-assisted therapy

the front cover of a crosscurrents magazine- the main image is a vase with bold coloured flowers

By Abigail Pugh

Winter 2004-05, Vol 8 No 2


Mental health professionals and researchers are confirming what pet owners have always known: Relationships with animals have many mental health and psychosocial benefits. These benefits are increasingly being harnessed by animal-assisted therapy (AAT) programs, particularly in mental health settings.

According to the Delta Society, an organization in Bellevue, Washington, that promotes the practice, AAT is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria becomes an integral part of treatment facilitated by a health care professional with specialized expertise. This sets AAT apart from animal-assisted activities, which are less structured, more recreational encounters between an individual and an animal, such as horseback riding. The goal of AAT in mental health settings is to improve verbal interaction and attention skills, relaxation and self-esteem, and to reduce anxiety, depression and loneliness.

One program promoting the potential benefits of AAT is the Pet Therapy Program at the Douglas Hospital, a psychiatric institution in Verdun, Quebec. Founded by occupational therapist Raymond Plouffe in 1986, it is one of Canada’s only professionally run AAT programs. Animals are used as an integral part of psychodynamic therapy run by staff professionally trained in both human and animal behaviour.

Plouffe began working with dogs and cats, and within a year, added rabbits, ferrets, fish, turtles and a cockatoo named Rocco. Harley, a pot-bellied pig, is particularly popular with adolescent clients: “Harley is completely different from a dog or cat, with his tactile, coarse coat and shy, eccentric personality,” says Plouffe. “Young people who are trying to make a statement about their individuality might gravitate toward Harley.”

Plouffe recalls one client with a long history of abuse who had been institutionalized for years. “Working with Harley has helped her to come out of her shell; she has become more productive in therapy. She has also become more independent and this year moved into a community apartment.”

The program has had enormous success with a variety of mental health clients. For example, children who arrive at the hospital unable to show empathy improve with AAT. Clients with Alzheimer’s also benefit: “We work on memory by always bringing the same pet at the same time, and often people come out of themselves as a result,” says Plouffe. “The therapy can bring back memories. One lady remembered a black dog that loved to chase a toboggan. Our black lab Jake brought back those good feelings.”

Plouffe says that an animal may stand in for a family member during family therapy sessions and may prompt discussion: “A child might say ‘One of my brothers is picking on me and I feel a bit like Twiggy (a small female ferret) today.’”

Although incorporating animals into treatments for mental illness has been documented as early as the 18th century in Europe, the idea did not spread to North America until 1919, when Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. introduced dogs as companions for psychiatric inpatients. Animal interventions then faded from the scene, replaced by innovations in pharmacotherapy. But they resurfaced in an institutional setting in 1975, when an inpatient at the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Ohio found an injured sparrow and brought it to a ward housing the most depressed, withdrawn patients. Flouting hospital rules, patients and staff took care of the bird, with improvements in overall well-being and communicativeness. Today, the Oakwood Forensic Center, as the hospital is now called, runs an AAT program; clients on wards with AAT require half the medication of clients on other wards.

Despite such anecdotal evidence, results are difficult to measure and quantify scientifically, but a body of research is growing that indicates the positive effects of AAT. In 2004, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, a professor of nursing and veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri-Columbia, found that levels of serotonin, a hormone that helps fight depression, rise dramatically after interaction with dogs. Similarly, a 2000 study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research reported that AAT improved behaviour and mood by releasing certain hormones. A 2001 study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that inpatients with schizophrenia who participated in AAT improved over a control group on measures of socializing, activities of daily living and general well-being.

Still, professionally run programs, like that at the Douglas Hospital, are rare; most animal interventions are run as voluntary, informal programs. But that may change with the Chimo Project, a large-scale initiative to promote AAT, with the ultimate goal of entrenching AAT in Canada’s health care system.

Founded by Dennis Anderson during his term as president of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Alberta, the Chimo Project, named after Anderson’s dog companion, is the first provincially funded project to systematically bring mental health professionals and their clients together with animals to prove the benefits of AAT in mental health settings.

“It’s unfortunate that AAT is not yet widely accepted by the medical community, and this limits its practical use in real-life settings,” says Dr. Liana Urichuk, a researcher involved with the project. But with grants from the Alberta Health Innovation Fund and the departments of Health and Children’s Services, the Chimo Project is striving to legitimize the practice. Over three years, the project is conducting province-wide research into AAT applications in goal-oriented therapies. Rigorous evaluations to date have found positive outcomes across all age groups, particularly among youth.

Anderson hopes the project will establish AAT as a valuable adjunctive therapy. “Our goal isn’t for the project to continue indefinitely, but to develop prototypes for using AAT for various mental health issues. It will take hospitals and professionals asking for AAT in order for it to become an ongoing, important component of treatment. The project is a major step in that direction.”

Visit the Chimo Project for more information.