Social work and animal-assisted therapy

Although perhaps not as widely known as other more conventional approaches to the treatment of patients by clinical social workers, pet therapy is becoming increasingly popular. Students who are earning their master’s in social work (MSW) may want to familiarize themselves with the various types of treatment available, and how it can be used in real-world scenarios to help people.

What is animal-assisted therapy (AAT)?

The use of animals in clinical social work, and other schools of psychiatric medicine, is an increasingly common practice. Studies have shown that patients with mental, emotional and behavioral difficulties respond well to the inclusion of animals into therapeutic treatment, and the use of animals in such situations is rapidly becoming a specialist treatment area in itself.

It is important for students enrolled in MSW degree programs to draw a distinction between therapeutic animals, such as those used in AAT programs, and service animals, such as seeing eye and hearing dogs used by people with sight or hearing difficulties. It is also vital for students and social workers to be able to identify situations where AAT is an appropriate treatment option.

What Is Animal Assisted Therapy? An overview of AAT, how it was first introduced into modern medical practice, and how positive human-animal interactions can benefit patients emotionally and psychologically.

Stress Management and Four-Legged Therapy An introduction to pet therapy and how therapeutic animals can be employed in certain situations involving behaviorally challenged children.

Differences Between Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) and AAT Although similar, there are distinct differences between these two approaches to animal-assisted medicinal practice. Students who are pursuing their MSW degrees should learn the defining characteristics of the two to ensure they can recommend the appropriate approach in clinical social work situations.

How AAT Can Work Alongside Other Psychotherapeutic Techniques A comprehensive article published by the National Institute of Mental Health, explaining how AAT can work alongside other psychotherapeutic techniques when dealing with patients.

Applications of AAT

The use of animals in clinical social work and other specialist medicinal treatment programs, especially those within the field of mental health, was seen as unorthodox until recently. However, numerous studies have shown that human-animal interactions can be tremendously beneficial to patients who suffer from a variety of conditions. AAT can be used by social workers and other professionals in a wide range of cases, scenarios and situations.

The Health Benefits of Companion Animals A comprehensive examination of several real-world scenarios proving the effectiveness of AAT in clinical scenarios on a variety of patient conditions.

Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy in Cases of Anxiety, Fear, and Depression A paper that examines the potential gains of AAT in patients who are suffering from acute psychological disorders, and how those gains can be measured against traditional treatment options such as electroconvulsive therapy.

Animal-Assisted Therapy with Female Inmates with Mental Illness A study investigating the use of AAT in a pilot project commissioned by the Utah Department of Corrections.

Animal-Assisted Therapy in Hospice Care An article first published in Social Work Today magazine detailing how AAT can be used in hospices to improve the quality of end-of-life care for terminally ill patients.

Helping Children with Disabilities through Animal-Assisted Therapy A report claiming that although AAT can be effective in the treatment of generalized physical and emotional difficulties, more specific, patient-oriented approaches can and should be implemented in cases dealing with children who are suffering from disabilities.

Animal-Assisted Therapy with Farm Animals for Persons with Psychiatric Disorders A paper which examines how a program of AAT utilizing farm animals yielded positive results when applied to the study of 90 patients who were suffering from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia, personality disorders and anxiety.

Animal-Assisted Interventions in Social Work Education An article detailing how using a variety of techniques is crucial for successful case resolution by clinical social workers, and how AAT and associated therapies are gaining more credibility and widespread adoption by social work professionals.

Animal-Assisted Therapy as a Pain Relief Intervention for Children A report that analyzes the outcomes of AAT as an approach to pain relief interventions in children. The preliminary results of the report suggest that the patients treated in the AAT program experienced a significant reduction in pain in comparison to the control group.

Effects of AAT on Loneliness in an Elderly Population in Long-Term Care Facilities A study that aimed to offer valid clinical evidence that AAT strategies can objectively decrease loneliness in elderly patients.

AAT for Persons With Aphasia: A Pilot Study An article first published in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development focusing on how AAT-based approaches for people with aphasia, a language disability, was remarkably effective at improving and developing patient cognitive skills and expressive abilities.

Approaches to implementing AAT

Although the validity and success of AAT approaches to common physical and mental health problems are well-documented, some remain skeptical of the benefits of AAT. The following resources may prove useful to students earning their MSW degrees when dealing with cases where AAT could be a beneficial to the client, or when working in environments where a dedicated AAT program has not yet been introduced.

Mainstreaming AAT An article discussing how AAT can be adopted as a valid clinical approach to physical and mental disorders, and how the documentation and advocacy of AAT treatment can be advanced by medical and social work professionals.

Guidelines for Animal-Assisted Interventions in Healthcare Facilities This paper suggests a series of guidelines for clinical health professionals to consider when implementing an AAT program.

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