Emotional support animals are quite popular in today’s world. Some days if feels like you can’t go anywhere without seeing one. They’re at the airport, shopping centers, and even some restaurants. With the rise in animal support popularity, we wanted to take a moment to discuss the original animal-based therapy, animal-assisted therapy (AAT), and the benefits animals can have in the rehabilitation of those with acute or chronic, physical and mental diseases.

The Basics of Animal-Assisted Therapy

If you have a pet, you probably understand. Animals can help provide a sense of calm, comfort, and safety. Not to forget they can help divert attention away from stressful situations. Developing a bond with an animal can help better one’s sense of self-worth, improve communication, and help someone find purpose.

Animal-assisted therapy aims to improve the symptoms for patients suffering from mental, physical, social and emotional functioning. Depending on the needs and preferences of the patient, a number of different kinds of animals can be utilized. As you may have guessed, dogs tend to be the most popular (this kind of therapy is also known as canine-assisted therapy).  But horses (equine-assisted therapy), cats, pigs, rabbits, llamas, and even dolphins are among the other animals that have shown to help.

The Setting

AAT can take place in a variety of settings. Some of the most popular include prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, some boarding schools, and mental health facilities. This type of therapy is normally led by a qualified therapist or a professional with animal-specific specialized expertise. AAT treatment can also be done in a group or as an individual – depending on the type of program the patient is potentially/already in. While animal-assisted therapy includes spending time with an animal, AAT involves specific goals, strategies, and outcome measurements.

When AAT is Used

There is a strong bond between animals and people. Animals are accepting, non-threatening and non-judgmental, making it easier for people to open up. Studies on animal-assisted therapy found positive outcomes and overall improved emotional well-being in those with:

  • Autism
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Addiction
  • Behavioral issues
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Dementia
  • Developmental disorders
  • Emotional disorders
  • Chronic pain

What to Expect During Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Each treatment is geared toward the treatment of an individual. Depending on the nature of the specific therapy, there are a number of ways treatment is handled. In some cases, patients are able to keep the animal at home or by your side throughout the day. If it’s an animal like a horse or llama, that animal will be housed, and you will have opportunities to visit. If you are in a group or center, the trained therapy animal will come and visit you for sessions.

The Benefits of AAT

Let’s be honest, how many people don’t love animals? Because of their comforting nature, animal-assisted therapy is a great tool for anyone who has a hard time with traditional “talking” therapy. Some of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy include:

  • Improved fine motor skills
  • Improved balance
  • Increased focus and attention
  • Increased self-esteem and ability to care for oneself
  • Reduced anxiety, grief, and isolation
  • Reduced blood pressure, depression, and risk of heart attack or stroke
  • Improved willingness to be involved in a therapeutic program or group activity
  • Increased trust, empathy and teamwork
  • Greater self-control
  • Enhanced problem-solving skills
  • Reduced need for medication
  • Improved social skills

What to Look for in Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy works in tandem with traditional work done by a licensed psychotherapist, social worker, or another wellness provider. Animals must undergo formal training in order to be certified. You can find information and groups that provide trained service dogs in your area through Assistance Dogs International. A professional mental health–care provider who is familiar with animal-assisted therapies can help you get certification for your own pet or locate a program or animal that is right for you.

Let CPA Help You!

We at CPA are currently working to get our favorite good boy, Milo, his therapy certification. Keep an eye out as we will notify the public when his training is complete. Until then, if you are interested in other forms of therapy treatment, Cristina Panaccione and Associates has two locations in the South Hills and one office in Robinson Township. We are currently accepting a limited number of new patients, so check out our videos to learn more about how we can help you learn the skills you need to cope with the punches life throws at you!

* This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please contact a medical professional for advice.

Toni Contestabile – M.Ed, LCSW

Hi! I’m Toni and thanks for reading my bio— I like long walks on the beach, deep conversations..etc.. I am not your typical therapist. And I’m incredibly easy to talk to and very relatable. It’s not easy to bear your soul to a stranger, but I’m told that with me it’s easier than most. I hold a bachelors degree from Penn State, a master of special education from Pitt, and a master of social work from the University of Southern California. I’m particularly skilled at working with trauma, mood disorders, veterans and their families, depression, and ADHD. I operate from a neuropsychological perspective and will help you to understand the origins of your concerns, and will work to give you the tools to mitigate them as well.  I’m open to working with children, couples, and adults of all ages.


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