The healing power of animals in mental health care

How Animal Assisted Therapy Boosts Teen Mental Health

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What is animal assisted therapy?

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of spending time with a beloved pet. As they snuggle up against you or curl up in your lap, you feel a deep sense of connection and companionship. In such moments, the world fades away, and all that matters is the bond you share with your furry friend.

We now know that this experience not only feels wonderful but also provides a slew of therapeutic benefits, which is why animal-assisted therapy has become so popular. Research suggests that it can help your teen significantly reduce stress, anxiety, and pain while boosting mood, social skills, and overall well-being. 

In animal-assisted therapy, animals and their handlers work alongside therapists to help patients achieve treatment objectives. It may be helpful for treating a range of conditions in teens, including

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Addiction
  • Schizophrenia
  • Behavioral problems

However, more research is needed to confirm its efficacy. Dogs are the most common therapy animals, but cats, horses, llamas, guinea pigs, and even African grey parrots are used for this purpose. 

By combining the expertise of mental health professionals with the compassion and love of animals, animal-assisted therapy creates a unique path to adolescent healing and wellness. However, animal-assisted therapy isn’t a stand-alone treatment modality and should not replace evidence-based approaches like online counseling for teens.

What’s the difference between animal assisted therapy and animal assisted activities?

Animal-assisted activities are casual visits with animals, such as when volunteers take a therapy dog to brighten someone’s day. Picture this: you’re a university student drowning in a sea of exams, deadlines, and responsibilities. The stress is suffocating, and you can’t seem to catch a break. 

Then someone brings a dog to your student center. As you stroke its fur, your mind quiets, and your heart rate slows. You’ve been stressed for weeks, but now you finally feel a sense of peace. While such visits can be helpful, they’re not the same as animal-assisted therapy, which requires specialized training and certification.

How does animal assisted therapy work?

There are many benefits of animal-assisted therapy. For starters, spending time with animals can cause feel-good chemicals to flood our brains. These compounds, known as endorphins, can improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression. Interacting with therapy animals can also stimulate the release of oxytocin, known as the “cuddle hormone,” which promotes feelings of relaxation and bonding.

Similarly, animals can help lower teen anxiety levels by providing a sense of calm and safety and have been shown to lower levels of anger and irritability. Cuddling with a therapy animal provides physical comfort, which can be soothing for youth struggling with emotional pain or behavioral problems. Animals can bond with humans without the need to say a word, which is helpful for those who find it difficult to communicate verbally. Because they reduce stress and anxiety, therapy animals help adolescents feel more at ease and receptive to traditional therapy. The unconditional love and companionship therapy animals offer can also be beneficial during hospital stays and medical procedures. However, animal therapy is not the best treatment approach for everyone. If someone fears or dislikes animals or is allergic to them, it’s likely not a good fit.

What are the different types of animal assisted therapy?

  • Canine-assisted therapy: Dogs create a calming atmosphere, helping clients feel more comfortable and less stressed. This can make it easier for them to open up and connect with their clinician, leading to a better therapeutic experience. 
  • Feline-assisted therapy: While dogs are the most well-known therapy animals, cats are increasingly used in animal-assisted therapy programs. They’re an excellent alternative for those who find dogs or larger animals intimidating. 
  • Equine-assisted therapy: By forming a bond with horses, patients learn to recognize, understand, and manage their emotions, leading to improved mental well-being.
  • Small-animal-assisted therapy: This form of animal-assisted therapy involves smaller animals, such as rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, and mice. These animals are useful because they can be easily transported to hospitals, schools, clinics, and nursing homes.

What training is required to provide animal assisted therapy?

To ensure safety and effectiveness, therapy animals and their handlers must undergo rigorous training together to develop a strong bond and learn how to work as a cohesive team. Therapy animals must have a gentle nature so that they have a calming effect on patients. To prepare them for the challenges of animal-assisted psychotherapy, they’re exposed to various stressful stimuli, such as loud noises and crowded spaces. As a result, they become better at staying focused and tuning out distractions.

The final step is certification, which is obtained through recognized therapy animal organizations, such as Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International, that assess an animal’s suitability and its handler’s ability to provide proper care. To stay certified, handlers and animals must keep learning and updating their skills through ongoing education.

How does equine therapy work?

In equine-assisted therapy, clients participate in activities like grooming, feeding, and leading a horse under the guidance of a mental health professional. Because horses are incredibly perceptive animals that mirror human emotions—responding to a person’s emotional state—working with them helps patients connect with their emotions and learn to manage them in healthy ways. For example, if an individual approaches a horse feeling nervous or uncertain, the horse might step back or display signs of unease. On the other hand, when someone approaches calmly, a horse is likely to respond with trust and openness. 

By observing how a horse responds to their feelings and actions, adolescents can develop greater self-awareness. This dynamic interplay helps them understand how their emotions and body language influence those around them and provides them with penetrating insights into their own emotions. Working with horses can thus prompt significant therapeutic breakthroughs. Some teens find it easier to explore their feelings with a horse, as the animal’s nonverbal communication feels less threatening than talking to a person. 

Horses also require regular care and attention—such as feeding, watering, and exercising—and providing such care can be therapeutic in itself. Such activities can help youth establish routines and structure, creating a sense of purpose and responsibility. Caring for a horse can also help them develop empathy and compassion. By meeting a horse’s needs, they learn the value of self-care. 

The mental health benefits of pets

Your teen doesn’t have to be enrolled in an animal-assisted therapy program to reap the mental health benefits animals provide. Pets offer some of the same benefits, such as decreasing levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Pets can reduce symptoms of depression and improve overall mood, thanks to the release of endorphins and oxytocin they prompt. By encouraging participation in pet-related activities or groups, they can also help adolescents meet and form connections with others.

Pets provide unconditional love, acceptance, and support, which is especially important for teenagers struggling with mental health challenges. Lastly, pets can be a healthy distraction from everyday worries and concerns, providing your teen a much-needed mental health break.

Final thoughts

From hospitals and schools to treatment centers and nursing homes, animal therapy is positively impacting individuals struggling with mental health challenges—including teens. 

When therapy animals enter a room, they instantly create a sense of peace and comfort that can be profoundly healing. And not only the patients benefit; families, caregivers, and staff members also experience the joy and love of being in the presence of animals. 

So, whether you’re looking to complement your child’s mental health treatment, such as online teen therapy, or just seeking a soothing pet for them, consider leveraging the profound mental health benefits animal-assisted therapy can have on teen lives.