A systematic review of research on different forms of animal-assisted therapy for children and adolescents has found promising early results, but the research is far from being able to establish these therapies as “evidence-based”.
The International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations defines an animal-assisted therapy as a “goal-oriented and structured intervention that intentionally includes or incorporates animals in health, education and human service … for the purpose of therapeutic gains in humans.” The safe and trusting relationship that a child can form with an animal is thought to have therapeutic benefits.
The reviewers found only 24 studies in 15 years (2000-2015) that were rigorous enough to be considered.
- 11 involved horses, 10 involved dogs, one involved guinea pigs and two involved multiple animals (rabbits, cats, farm animals).
- Eight were for children with emotional and behavioral problems, three for children approaching a frightening medical or dental procedure, nine for children with autism spectrum disorder, one for children with ADHD and three for children with post-traumatic stress disorder.
- 18 took place outside of a medical setting (e.g., an animal stable, a child centre), four were part of a residential programme and two were delivered in a hospital.
None of the interventions is easily replicable, however, since none provided a detailed and scripted manual.
The results of the trials were mixed, with the strongest evidence emerging around horse therapies to help children with autism (four studies showed positive results) and dog therapies to help traumatised children (three studies showed positive results).
A variety of factors were measured in the studies, and in general, children’s outcomes improved when they received the active animal-assisted intervention compared to similar interventions without the use of animals. But there were inconsistencies. The improvements that were measured included:
- Improvements in behavior, social functioning, conversation, motor skills, and motivation
- Reductions in irritability, hyperactivity, ADHD symptoms, PTSD symptoms, aggression, anxiety, distress and cortisol levels, depression, and autism symptoms.
If these early results continue to hold with further research, this type of therapy may turn out to be quite valuable for children.
Hoagwood KE, Acri M, Morrissey M & Peth-Pierce R (2017), Animal-assisted therapies for youth with or at risk for mental health problems: A systematic review, Applied Development Science 21.1