The Healing Power of Animals

Patients loved my dog Missy, a gentle Border Collie I often took into my family practice office. Having her there was therapeutic for them and for me.

The companionship of animals has provided humans with a powerful healing bond for thousands of years. No wonder animal assisted therapy (AAT) has become a way to enhance an individual’s physical, social, emotional and spiritual well being. This emphasis on psychological, spiritual and physical healing distinguishes the use of animals in AAT from the use of service animals trained to perform specific tasks for a person with a disability, such as blindness, hearing loss and other impairments. But even in these more narrowly defined interactions, animals can have healing benefits far beyond the technical or mechanical help they provide for a person’s disability. Although dogs and horses are the most commonly used animals in therapy, other animals include cats, rabbits, birds, fish, gerbils, elephants, dolphins and lizards.

The relationship-centered nature of AAT provides an opportunity for both patient and animal to give and receive love and affection. This makes AAT well suited for care of veterans and their families who are struggling to cope with the effects of wartime military service. The American Humane Association (AHA) began its animal-assisted therapy program in 1945, using dogs to comfort and motivate injured World War II soldiers. The US military now uses AAT to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in returning soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Research suggests that the physical and social interactions with animals increases the secretion of stress-relieving chemicals such as oxytocin, leading to reductions in soldiers’ symptoms from traumatic brain injuries, amputations and PTSD.

Having a parent deployed indefinitely to an active combat zone is one of the most stressful events in childhood. AHA now works with the National Military Family Association supporting camps for children of deployed military parents. By providing a calming presence and offering nonjudgmental, loving affection, therapy dogs can help children talk about the fear, anger and uncertainty they feel.

Most children are attracted to animals and can often express themselves better with them than with other children or adults, especially children who have experienced physical or mental neglect, abuse or trauma. I use a toy dog from my own childhood as a puppet to communicate with young children about emotionally charged issues. I ask them to bring one or more of their toy animals from home and we talk together, letting our toy animals do the talking. The results are heart-warming and often give me significant insights into the child’s feelings and relationships- insights that are often very different from the parents’ perspective.

Integrating animals into therapy can sometimes lead to results not attainable by conventional interventions alone. For this reason, doctors, hospitals and nursing homes find the calming effect of animals can help treat a wide range of clinical disorders, including high blood pressure, cerebral palsy, elevated cholesterol, depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, epilepsy and deafness.

Animals are used most often to help with emotional and stress-related problems. In this context, they are often referred to as comfort animals. Animals can help patients generate positive emotions, resolve feelings of loneliness, promote socialization, enhance trust, stimulate mental and social activity, improve overall well being and provide a distraction from stressful medical procedures and chemotherapy. Because animals are non-judgmental, people with physical deformities may find it easier to socialize with animals than with people.

AAT can include animals living with a patient or family, volunteers and therapists bringing animals into hospitals, nursing homes, schools and libraries as well as patients’ traveling to sites where the animals are maintained. Animals must be up to date on routine vaccinations and be in good health. To ensure safety, experienced therapists are required in therapy using large animals such as horses and dolphins.

To avoid causing harm, patients must be carefully assessed for potential risks of AAT, including fear of animals and severe mental health disorders. Known and unknown allergies may also require pre-medication and adjustments in type and duration of exposure to animals. Patients with immune suppression from HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy, radiation, high-dose steroids and other immune-suppressive medications must be cleared by their physician before participating in AAT.

AAT currently has no state or national certification. Individual hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and other institutions have their own rules regarding the therapeutic use of animals in their facilities. Organizations like Pet Partners offer courses to facilitate the training of animals and their human partners. The Pet Partners website lists courses and conferences around the country as well as the necessary qualifications to become an AAT instructor.


American Humane Association

Pet Partners

Aubrey Fine (ed), Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy, 2010, Academic Press

Meet Dr. Patterson

Dr. Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Saybrook University’s School of Mind Body Medicine (San Francisco) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative medicine consultations.