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Tagged In:  Social Work, Social Worker

More and more social workers are discovering the beneficial effects of animal assisted therapy. 




Most pet owners are aware of the positivity their beloved pooches, felines and bunnies bring to their lives. But is there a role for animals in the treatment and care of people with mental health issues, disabilities or long-term conditions? An increasing number of health and social care professionals seem to think so.

It's called animal assisted therapy (AAT). And it's not new. "A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases," wrote Florence Nightingale in 1859. In the 1930s, psychoanalysis pioneer Sigmund Freud found that the presence of his pet chow , Jofi, helped to calm patients on the couch. And in the 1960s, child psychotherapist Boris Levinson found that a non-verbal nine-year-old boy began to communicate when Levinson's dog, Jingles, sat in on sessions.

More recently, several studies have indicated that animals can have a beneficial effect in helping care for people with a variety of conditions, from trauma suffered by victims of child sexual abuse to dementia and attachment representations of youth in residential care. Petting an animal is also believed to cause the release of endorphins, which can have an extremely positive impact in patients suffering from depression.

In practice, AAT is mostly practised non-formally by independent providers and there is still a fair amount of scepticism in the health and social care community. However, anecdotal evidence is hard to ignore, particularly from the USA, where AAT is more widely accepted and used. For example, therapy animals have been used since 1999 to help improve children's reading, communication and social skills. 1,300 Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) therapy teams are now working in schools and libraries across the country. "It is priceless to see the eager faces and enthusiasm of young children reading to their therapy dogs,” said Kathy Klotz, READ’s executive director.

One of the main concerns about the use of AAT is the potential for transmission of disease. If this is a concern, there's always the 'virtual' solution. Research has shown that even showing videos of animals such as fish, birds or monkeys can help reduce people's stress levels.

Animals will never replace therapists or carers. However, it seems they may have an important role to play in health and social care. And with at least one UK AAT practitioner working with everything from hedgehogs to snakes, it seems it's not just dogs who are man's (or woman's) best friend.

If you have found animals to be useful in helping any of the people you support, we’d love to hear more. You can either leave us a comment or post a picture of your pet to our twitter @SanctuarySW

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