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Animal-assisted Activities: Improving Health and Wellbeing For Those In Need

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to share your home with a companion animal, you know the great joy a non-human animal can bring to your life. Our companion animals make us laugh and, perhaps more importantly, are there for us when we’re most upset. They do not judge us for how we look or how much money we make. The unconditional love from our companion animals is an amazing gift. It may be no surprise to you then the overwhelmingly positive benefits animal-assisted activities (AAA) have shown to have on humans. Animal-assisted activities are simply any form of casual human-animal interaction, such as dogs visiting the elderly at a nursing home. Similarly, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) also involves interaction between humans and other animals but is practiced by trained professionals with specific individualized therapy goals in mind for a specific human. AAA and AAT, with help from fantastic non-profits such as Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society), are gaining the respect and attention they deserve for their impressive results.

Humans with disabilities

For humans with disabilities, especially those who are children, AAA and AAT is utilized in many ways to deliver the best aid possible. Equine-assisted therapy has shown to be especially helpful for humans with disabilities. The rhythmic movement of the horse is often used to influence the riders posture, mobility, and balance. Therapeutic riding also uses the recreational pleasures of riding to promote various social and emotional benefits. This can be a normalizing type of activity for those who do not feel accepted due to their disability. Being able to work with a thousand pound animal often instills a sense of mastery and pride in those children who may have never felt such emotions before. Also, as previously mentioned, non-human animals do not judge humans based on the way they look. For those people with disfigurements or deformities, opening up to a non-human animal may be significantly easier to do than with a human. The self-esteem one can gain by feeling accepted by a non-human, may it be a horse or any other animal, could be the first step in eventually opening up to humans as well.

Victims of abuse or trauma

A common and unfortunate link that often occurs alongside human abuse is the abuse of other animals. Many battered women will stay with their abuser out of fear of leaving their companion animal behind, especially if they have both been victims. It is also true that children who view violent acts in their households are more likely to become abusive towards humans and non-humans as adults. Because of this, AAA and AAT are not only useful but are also perhaps vital for those who have suffered abuse. Children are especially drawn to animals and often find comfort in them because they have not been able to do so with other humans. A feeling of security and sanctuary is something much needed after coming out of an abusive experience. Many children and adults who have been abused also forget, or may have never known, what is like to be touched in a loving way. Not only does the soft fur of an animal appeal to our senses but oxytocin, the “love hormone,” is released with human-animal contact, evoking feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, and feelings of calmness. All of these positive benefits of human-animal interaction can greatly benefit victims of various traumatic experiences, not just victims of abuse. Most recently, nine therapy dogs were brought to Newtown, CT in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to help bring comfort to those in their time of great sadness

The elderly

In recent years, more and more senior care centers have begun to welcome companion animals as research continues to show mounting benefits for their residents.

We often consider those who have reached their 80s, 90s, and sometimes even 100s very lucky. Unfortunately, however, many of those who have reached old age have seen many of their friends and loved ones pass away. But thankfully, the companionship of a therapy dog or a cat can help provide the much needed contact we all long for at every stage in life. Not only do these animals serve as the excellent friends we all know them to be, they may also provide important medical health benefits as well. It has been shown that contact with non-human animals help lower cholesterol, blood pressure and triglyceride levels, as well as lowering levels of stress and anxiety – many of the health problems facing the elderly. The emotional and physical benefits of human-animal interaction sound better than a miracle pill to me!

Image Source: Pete Markham/Flickr