Benefits of Animal-Assisted Activities/Therapy

Human-animal interactions may provide the following benefits to adults and children in a variety of human care facilities:

EmpathyStudies report that children who live in homes in which a pet is considered a member of the family are more empathetic than children in homes without pets. Children see animals as peers. It is easier to teach children to be empathetic with an animal than with a human. With animals, what you see is what you get. Humans are not as direct. Children can be taught to read an animal's body language. Understanding what an animal is feeling is easier than determining what a person is feeling because the animal is straightforward and lives in the moment. As children get older, their ability to empathize with animals will carry over into their experiences with people.
Outward FocusIndividuals who have mental illness or low self-esteem focus on themselves; animals can help them focus on their environment. Rather than thinking and talking about themselves and their problems, they watch and talk to and about the animals.
NurturingNurturing skills are learned. Many at-risk children have not learned nurturing skills through the traditional channel - their parents. By being taught to take care of an animal, the children can develop these skills. Psychologically, when a person nurtures, his/her need to be nurtured is being fulfilled.
RapportAnimals can open a channel of emotionally safe, non-threatening communication between client and therapist. In therapy settings, animalshelp present an air of emotional safety. If a therapist has an animal in his/her office, s/he "can't be all bad." The animal's presence may open a path through the person's initial resistance. Children are especially likely to project their feelings and experiences onto an animal.
AcceptanceAnimals have a way of accepting without qualification. They don't care how a person looks or what they say. An animal's acceptance is nonjudgmental, forgiving, and uncomplicated by the psychological games people often play.
EntertainmentAt a minimum, the presence of an animal can be entertaining. Even people who don't like animals often enjoy watching their antics and reactions. Especially in long-term care facilities, it seems everyone is entertained by animal visits in some way.
SocializationStudies have shown that when dogs and cats come to visit a care facility, there is more laughter and interaction among residents than during any other "therapy" or entertainment time. In an inpatient setting, the presence of animals encourages socialization in 3 ways: Between clients, between clients and staff, and between clients, staff, and family or other visitors.
Staff members have reported that it is easier to talk to residents during and after animal visits. Family members often come during the animal visits and some have reported that it is an especially comfortable and pleasant time to come. 
Mental StimulationMental stimulation occurs because of increased communication with other people, recalled memories, and the entertainment provided by the animals. In situations that are depressing or institutional, the presence of the animals serves to brighten the atmosphere, increasing amusement, laughter, and play. These positive distractions may help to decrease people's feelings of isolation or alienation.
Physical Contact, TouchMuch has been written about the correlation between touch and health. Infants who are not touched do not develop healthy relationships with other people and often fail to thrive and grow physically. For some people, touch from another person is not acceptable, but the warm, furry touch of a dog or cat is. In hospitals, where most touch is painful or invasive, the touch of an animal is safe, non-threatening, and pleasant. There are a number of programs for people who have been physically or sexually abused in which staff and volunteers are not allowed to touch the clients. In cases like these, having an animal to hold, hug, and touch can make a world of difference to people who would otherwise have no positive, appropriate physical contact.
Physiological BenefitsMany people are able to relax when animals are present. Tests have shown that the decrease in heart rate and blood pressure can be dramatic. Even watching fish swim in an aquarium can be very calming.
Something MoreWhen they are with animals, some people feel spiritual fulfillment or a sense of oneness with life and nature. This is hard to define or explain. Some well-known authors have described their relationships with animals and nature as part of their sustaining life energy and/or part of their communion and relationship with God. Albert Schweitzer, George W. Carver, and J. Allen Boone (author of Kinship with All Life), among others, express this "something more" in their writing and work.

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