How animals help us recover from trauma

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Dog and horse

Humans have a long history to use animals in psychological treatment. In the late 18th century, animals were incorporated into mental health institutions to help patients socialize. In the United States, people who experience trauma, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), get help from animals to reduce their stress.

Although animals can play a positive role in humans’ mental health, how empirical data support this role is still unclear.

In a review recently published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers summarized findings of animal-assisted intervention for trauma.

They focused on 10 studies that directly examined animal-assisted therapy of trauma (e.g., abuse and war). The animals include dogs, horses, cats, rabbits, and other farm animals. Typical intervention settings are farms, home, school, riding center, treatment center, and laboratory. The therapy is either conducted individually or in a small group (6-10 people) and often last from 1 week to 12 weeks.

Researchers found that dogs were the only species included in traditional, clinic-based therapy sessions, whereas horses and farm animals tended to be part of more active engagement outdoors.

Studies commonly reported that animals could help reduce depression, PTSD symptoms and anxiety. Some studies showed that participants had increased attachment security, feelings of social support, reduced nightmares, and longer sleep. In addition, some studies showed reduced problem behaviors in children.

Researchers suggest that animal-assisted intervention is useful as a complementary treatment for trauma.

However, research in this field is still in an early stage, and more work is needed to valuate outcomes for different types of trauma and outcomes in larger community samples.


Citation: O’Haire ME, Guérin NA, Kirkham AC. (2015). Animal-Assisted Intervention for trauma: a systematic literature review. Frontiers in Psychology, 6:1121. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01121.
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