Animal Assisted Therapy Or Her Therapist was a Horse

Photo credit to The Columbus Dispatch / Eamon Queeney

Photo credit to The Columbus Dispatch / Eamon Queeney

As a retired long-term-care benefit analyst, the most heart-wrenching conversations I had were with families of cognitively-impaired individuals. Cognitive impairment can be diagnosed for a variety of reasons, but we are most familiar with Alzheimer’s/Dementia. This is also on my mind because I turned 65 last year and every time I lose a word, I wonder whether my mind is next.

Dementia therapy most often consists of crafts, exercise, and other activities seen as dementia management tools. But there are other methods that might be even more helpful.

Animal Assisted Therapy (ATT)

This story is about something else – alternative methods of helping people with Dementia, even if they don’t remember it later. At some point, the Alzheimer’s/Dementia experience can increase agitation and aggression. Patients become less physically active, withdrawn, and they eat very little. Keeping them always surrounded by others in the same condition does not help.

AAT has been conducted and studied to assist children and troubled teens, more commonly using dogs and cats. But does it also help adults?

Horse Therapy

Ohio State University, Field of Dreams Equine Educational Resource, and an adult day care participated in a small study with the results published recently in Anthrozoos. “We wanted to test whether people with dementia could have positive interactions with horses, and we found that they can—absolutely,” Dabelko-Schoeny said. “The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidents of negative behavior.”

The results of this study suggest that AAT can also help adults. Clients of the adult day care visited a farm once a week. They walked the horses, groomed them, and fed them. As a bonus, they pushed their normal physical activity levels to interact with the horses. One family commented to researchers that her mother “would never remember what she did at the center during the day, but she always remembered what she did at the farm.”

Benefits of ATT

According to the National Institutes of Health’s website, ATT reduces behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD) for residents in long-term-care facilities. The presence of a small dog can reduce aggression and agitation and can also promote better social behavior. A small sampling of facilities indicates that residents eat more and gain weight if aquariums are placed in the dining rooms of dementia care units.

Alz.org blogger Sherri Snelling says, “The notion of pet therapy all began in the 1860s although most of the studies were conducted in the 1980s. While the medical community is still waiting for scientific data that shows pet therapy can have long-term or behavioral change benefits, even famous nurse Florence Nightingale recognized that animals provided a level of social support in the institutional care of the mentally ill over 150 years ago. In an effort to prove the therapeutic benefits of pet therapy, The National Institutes of Health has funded grants to study scientific evidence-based research in therapeutic effects on children.”

Why Isn’t ATT Common in Elder Care?

ATT requires a lot of planning, training, and work to make it safe. Additionally, science does not consider it to be scientific at this time. There aren’t enough controlled studies, and there isn’t enough information regarding a subject’s prior history with animals. What if they were bitten by a dog when young, for example? How can results of ATT be directly measured?

Just watch this video put together by Lakeview Ranch to see their experience with ATT. They believe that measurable results in Range of Motion therapy, the increased emotional and mental wellbeing of the residents, and better socialization skills all prove the value of animal assisted therapy.

What are we waiting for? Science? Aren’t those engaged faces enough?

“Animals are such agreeable friends, they ask no questions – they pass no criticisms.” George Eliot


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