Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), also referred to as pet therapy, is a type of therapy that involves animals as a part of the therapeutic process to improve physical, emotional, social, and cognitive functioning. Animal-assisted therapy is rooted in the Biophilia Hypothesis, which is the “idea that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.” AAT can provide teenagers with mental health challenges an array of benefits, such as:
- Emotional support: Animals provide a sense of comfort, acceptance, and unconditional love, which can be particularly helpful for teenagers who struggle with emotional dysregulation and/ or have experienced trauma.
- Reduces isolation: Empirical evidence suggests that AAT can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, as teens who feel disconnected from others find comfort and companionship in working with animals. Additionally, as stated in Human–animal interaction and the benefits to mental health: A phenomenological study, “Animal interaction can act as the vehicle through which social connection may be enhanced or increased.”
- Improves mood: Data presented by the San Francisco non-profit Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) has revealed that bonding with animals prompts the body to release certain hormones (e.g., serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin) that generate a relaxation and stress-reducing response, which minimizes the symptoms of depression and sadness. Additionally, pet interaction can help to release endorphins, producing a calming effect and improving one’s overall psychological state.
- Increases self-esteem: A literature review exploring the efficacy of animal facilitated counseling found that pet therapy “allows children an outlet for the loving part of themselves and helps them control and regulate their own behavior while developing empathy toward other living creatures. Through successes with the animal, many children can increase their self-esteem and thereby have more confidence when approaching new tasks.”
- Enhances traditional treatment protocols: A study published in 2019 found that the use of trained dogs helped to boost the effectiveness of therapy in adolescent children.
- Increases motivation: Research shows that teenagers are often more motivated to engage in therapy when animals are involved. The presence of an animal can make therapy sessions feel more enjoyable and engaging, which can improve treatment outcome.
Animal-assisted therapy can provide unique and valuable benefits for teens with mental illness, promoting emotional well-being, social interaction, and enhancing overall quality of life.
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