Animal-assisted therapy is not a recently invented approach to health improvement. The first recorded use of animals in therapy took place at the York Retreat (England) in 1792, where interactions with animals were used to supplement treatment for people with mental disorders (Milligan, n.d.). Sigmund Freud was one of the first psychotherapists to implement the elements of animal therapy into practice by using his dog during sessions to help his clients to relax (Milligan n.d.). In 1944 and 1945, interaction with animals, such as cows and horses, was used at New York hospitals to improve harmed soldiers’ health outcomes (Milligan, n.d.). Efforts to transform animal therapy into an effective strategy to complement traditional treatment approaches became more prominent in the 1960s and the 1970s. During those decades, Boris Levinson’s research-based book about animals in child psychotherapy was published, and professional organizations concerned with promoting safe equine and dog therapies were created (Milligan, n.d.). In the mid-1990s, Delta Foundation published the book that strengthened the distinction between animal-assisted therapies and activities (Milligan, n.d.). Thus, the approaches to animal-based therapy have become more professional in recent decades.
The implementation of therapeutic structured and unstructured interventions that involve interactions between patients and animals is associated with well-documented health benefits. Based on RCTs, it is known that individual unstructured dog-assisted interventions are helpful in reducing the physiological signs of stress, such as an increased heart rate, in children aged six and younger (Friedmann, 2019). Animal-assisted interventions are beneficial for adults in many instances; for instance, the presence of therapeutic animals (dogs or aquarium animals) has been shown to improve the signs of stress in cancer patients and those before cardiac transplantation surgeries (Friedmann, 2019). The beneficial anti-stress effects of animal therapy with the help of dogs have also been documented in autistic teenagers and children (Friedmann, 2019). Structured therapeutic interventions with therapy animals also lead to reductions in PTSD symptoms in underage survivors of sexual abuse (Friedmann, 2019). Thus, stress reduction is the most commonly reported health benefit of interventions involving animals.
Apart from stress, which is an extremely common issue, interventions with animals can be potentially beneficial when it comes to dealing with pain and insufficient physical activity. The study by Braun et al. conducted in 2009 demonstrates that in a sample of pediatric hospital patients with painful conditions, interactions with dogs were associated with greater reductions in pain compared to usual care (Friedmann, 2019). This potential health benefit of therapeutic interactions with animals, however, remains under-researched at the moment. Another benefit of animal-assisted interventions is that they optimize the amount of physical activity in those with cognitive impairments, which can be beneficial for preventing the loss of function (Friedmann, 2019). Thus, the use of animal-assisted interventions can lead to less stress and better physical activity.
Despite the shown effectiveness of animal-based interventions in patients with multiple physical, developmental, and mental health conditions, there are some contraindications to consider. Interventions involving animals increase the risks of getting zoonotic infections and getting damages to the skin. With that in mind, they are contraindicated in people with confirmed or suspected pet allergies and diseases that make the immune system more susceptible to infections, such as HIV/AIDS (Mani & Weese, 2016). Other contraindications are related to the presence of open wounds and lacerations, and unidentified skin issues should also be analyzed to avoid complications (Mani & Weese, 2016). The psychological contraindications are mainly presented by an unexplainable fear of animals or zoophobia resulting from traumatic experiences (Mani & Weese, 2016). Considering that patients’ fears and allergic reactions are often related to particular species of animals, it is reasonable to review every case individually.
Integration into Nursing Practice
Animal therapy can be used in nursing facilities to maximize the positive outcomes of nursing care. As of now, many nursing homes have animal policies in place, and these facilities’ resources are utilized to organize safe animal-human interactions and let different animals live in the facilities or visit them from time to time (Stull et al., 2018). According to the survey of nursing facilities in Ohio, different types of animals, mostly dogs, cats, and birds, are allowed to visit nursing facilities and interact with residents within the frame of socialization-directed therapy programs (Stull et al., 2018). The degree to which animal-based therapy is integrated into nursing facilities’ operations and care provided to residents varies since there are no definite requirements and standards that all nursing homes would be supposed to follow. For instance, not many nursing homes have policies to address different forms of pet ownership or specify pet assessment requirements and the procedures to follow animal-inflicted injuries and similar incidents (Stull et al., 2018). Thus, nursing facilities in the U.S. vary in terms of how animal-assisted therapy is integrated into practice.
In summary, animal-based therapy is helpful in addressing stress, PTSD, and low physical activity. It positively impacts patients with diverse conditions, including autism and mental disorders. This promising supplementary approach to treatment should, however, be used with caution due to the risks of zoonotic infections or animal-inflicted injuries. Because of its positive mental health effects in people from diverse age groups, animal-human interactions can also be considered as contributor to nursing home residents’ well-being.