Costs, benefits and mechanisms of animal-assisted therapy : adopting a change in perspective

Wilson, Vanessa A. D. (2018) Costs, benefits and mechanisms of animal-assisted therapy : adopting a change in perspective. Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, 17 (4). ISSN 1478-1840

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Animal-assisted therapy has progressed in recent years, helping a broad spectrum of people to tackle stress, loneliness and health problems, including those with life-long disabilities. For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), animal-assisted therapy helps with social functioning and communication. Whilst numerous articles document the human benefits, far fewer studies have addressed the benefits, or costs, to the therapists themselves —– the animals. Whilst some studies indicate that humans and animals may mutually benefit from positive social interactions, we are yet to fully understand the mechanisms that regulate the social and behavioural outcomes of human-animal interactions under animal-assisted therapy, or its effects on the therapy animal. In this article, I discuss the benefits of examining the physiological and endocrinological mechanisms that underlie such interactions, and why it is important to understand the effects on both nonhumans and humans alike, focusing on animal-assisted therapy for children with ASD. I address species suitability and animal handling experience, and discuss an individualised approach that suits both child and animal, by considering patient needs and animal temperament. Together, these points allow us to reduce the potential of stress in therapy animals, improve the impact of animal-assisted therapy on recipients, and move towards a human-animal interaction that is mutually beneficial.

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