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Animals as Therapists?

A dementia patient with her guide spends the day at an alpaca farm as therapy in the village of Krukow on April 20, 2017 near Geesthacht, Germany. Morris MacMatzen / Getty Images

Therapeutic riding as occupational therapy, dogs visiting children with learning disabilities in school or hens spending time with seniors in elderly homes – so called animal-assisted interventions are manifold.

But administering treatments by professionally trained therapists and maintaining animal welfare are key, says Dr. Andrea Beetz. She is a psychologist, researcher and teacher and has worked in the field of human-animal interaction for more than 20 years.

DW: In what contexts have animal assisted interventions been particularly successful or used ?

Dr. Andrea Beetz: Animals have been integrated in all kinds of education and therapy for children. Children are very open. They have a natural affinity towards animals. They're curious about them.

So you can find a lot of school-visiting dogs or animal-assisted education approaches like therapeutic riding for the disabled, for instance.

We have a lot of success because children who are often tired of being in therapy and being in special kinds of support trainings, they are motivated again to participate in these interventions.

Another group that is highly visible in the field of animal-assisted interventions are seniors. One of the earliest interventions was a visiting program with dogs in homes for the elderly.

These visits were aimed at improving wellbeing, lightening the mood, occupying them, getting their mind off their age and illnesses.

So dogs are a great distraction and they are also social catalysts. They enable and facilitate conversations between humans.

DW: What do we know about the effectiveness of animal-assisted interventions?

Dr. Beetz: During the last 10 to 15 years, there have been numerous studies that document very positive effects of animal-assisted interventions.

For instance, there are several studies documenting that animal-assisted interventions can reduce depression and anxiety, they can improve mood, trust and also empathy. They reduce all kinds of stress indicators.

Blood pressure goes down, heart rate goes down. The levels of the stress hormone cortisol are reduced. And one hormone is especially interesting – the hormone oxytocin – the levels of this hormone increased.

And you have a lot of positive effects from that because it governs the whole system for calm and connectedness.

DW: If one has a pet, does that offer any kind of benefits just on its own?

Dr. Beetz: I would say yes, if you have contact with animals or you visit a horse every second day that's on the pasture where you go for a walk, you get some kind of interaction that can have positive effects for you.

It's not the same as a structured therapy or an educational approach. But yes, if you manage to pet the horse and both of you enjoy it, it can reduce your stress level and you can feel more connected and calm.

Studies have shown that pet owners actually are, on average, a bit healthier than non-pet owners. They sleep better. They have better cardiovascular parameters, like blood pressure. They have a higher survival rate after heart attacks.

DW: Does that mean that any animal can be used in animal-assisted interventions?

Dr. Beetz: No. We, at the International Society for Animal-Assisted Therapy, say that only certain species should be used. These species are usually domesticated species like dogs, cats, horses, cows, goats, sheep. But also llamas and alpacas are very popular. They also have a long history of being domesticated by humans.

This is important because these animals are more used to and they are less stressed by interactions with humans.

In addition to being a domesticated species, they also need to be well socialized with humans from a young age so that they are not stressed by the interaction and they actually enjoy it.

This group of animal species are also the most suitable for animal protection reasons. We also do not recommend working with snakes or other kinds of reptiles because there is a risk of salmonella infections.

So there's a lot of thought behind it. Even though you will find different examples where other species like dolphins are used, this is a wild species. But in the field we say, please keep it to domesticated animals.

DW: Are there certain limitations to animal-assisted interventions?

Dr. Beetz: One exclusion criteria could be that there's a strong allergy to the species involved.

People who are immunosuppressed or on immunosuppressants due to some kind of sickness are also at higher risk.

And another reason could be that people are just afraid of certain kinds of animals. Then you really need to consider, if you're going to take the time to first work on that fear and then have the positive effects of animal-assisted interventions, or if another kind of animal-free therapy would be better.

Dr. Andrea Beetz works at the IUBH University of Applied Sciences in Germany. Beetz is also active on the board of the International Society for Animal-Assisted Therapy (ISAAT).

The interview was conducted by Mira Fricke for TV and has been edited for clarity.

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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