Animal-assisted therapy or AAT is a type of healthcare strategy that involves interaction between a patient and an animal, often a household pet, as part of the treatment process. The general concept behind this type of therapy is that humans and certain animals can connect and establish a bond that is emotionally and mentally satisfying to the human who is recovering from some type of medical trauma or that is learning to live with an ongoing disability or health issue. As the bonding process continues, the relationship between human and animal helps to create a positive psychological state that in turn aids in the recovery of lost motor skills, vocabulary, and a number of other tools used in communication.
One of the most common examples of animal-assisted therapy involves the use of dogs and cats to cheer patients who are bedridden in healthcare facility such as a nursing home or hospital. The pets are screened, selected, and trained in advance before being allowed to interact with any patient. Only those patients who are receptive to the idea of animal-assisted therapy receive visits from the animals. Often, trainers remain nearby during the therapy, although the presence of a trainer may be decreased as the bond develops between the patient and the animal.
During each session, the patient is allowed to pet the animal and sometimes play a game with the dog or cat, activities that help to lift the mood while also promoting recovery of motor skills. Patients are often encouraged to talk to the animals during the visits, an activity that may also aid in recovery from strokes or other conditions that have adversely affected speech capabilities. The end result is that patients look forward to spending time with the animals, making what may otherwise be just another day of being ill into something that is welcome and eagerly anticipated.
Other animals can also be used in different types of animal-assisted therapy. Horses are sometimes helpful in aiding individuals who have undergone some sort of mental breakdown, with the tasks of brushing, walking, or even riding the horse often producing positive effects for the patient. Hamsters, fish, and other small pets may also produce positive emotional reactions while helping to draw the individual out of his or her shell, paving the way for rebuilding personal relationships with others. Dolphins can also be ideal for inclusion as part of water-based therapies that help to improve motor skills, build strength, and help to restore confidence that was lost due to some sort of emotional or physical trauma.
A number of health benefits take place during animal-assisted therapy, along with the obvious improved ability to move with more freedom and control, and the reduction in depression and other mental woes. Interaction with the animals can also help to lower blood pressure levels, which in turn decreases the potential for strokes and heart attacks. While still considered somewhat unorthodox and controversial in some circles, animal-assisted therapy is continuing to gain support from the medical community as the benefits of this type of therapy become manifest in a broader range of situations.