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The Benefits of Companion Animals for Managing Trauma

October 6, 2021
Infographic by Virginia Commonwealth University about the benefits of companion animals

According to the SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions, “Trauma results from an event, series of events or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.” Emerging evidence is suggesting interactions with animals may benefit trauma survivors.

To learn more, check out the infographic, created by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Online Master of Social Work.

Alarming Rates of Trauma, Violence and Abuse

People who have experienced trauma, violence and abuse often face lifelong impacts.

Trauma and Its Effects on LGBTQIA+ Individuals

LGBTQ individuals are twice as likely to experience hate crimes compared with other minority groups. The most common types of hate violence toward individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community include verbal harassment, discrimination, physical violence and threats.

LGB youths are four times as likely to attempt suicide. Those rejected by their families are 8.4 times as likely to attempt suicide compared with LGB peers with low or no levels of family rejection.

The Trauma of Intimate Partner Violence

On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. — more than 10 million individuals in a single year. One in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence and/or intimate partner stalking.

The potential consequences of intimate partner violence include adolescent pregnancy, unintended pregnancy, miscarriage, stillbirth, nutritional deficiency, abdominal pain, neurological disorders, chronic pain, disability, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and noncommunicable diseases, as well as increased risk for developing addictions to alcohol, tobacco or drugs.

The Impact of Trauma on Children

Children can be traumatized if they experience a car accident, natural disaster, death in the family, act of terrorism, child abuse, neglect, community violence, or physical or sexual assault. The potential lifelong effects of trauma include fear; anxiety; irritability; anger; aggression; problems with peers in school or in the neighborhood; and negative impact on neurological structures and functioning areas of the brain related to emotion regulation, learning and memory, and executive functioning.

The Potential of Animal-Assisted Therapy

According to an article published by Acta Scientific Neurology, “The [goal] of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is to provide long-term group or individual therapy for survivors of trauma that incorporates AAT in conjunction with exposure therapy, cognitive behavior therapy or empowerment therapy.”

History of AAT

The connection between humans and animals has been credited with numerous psychological and physiological benefits. In the 18th century, the York Retreat in England used rabbits, chickens and other farm animals to “enhance the humanity of the emotionally ill.” When Corporal Bill Wynne was hospitalized during WWII, his Yorkshire terrier, Smokey, was brought to his bedside to comfort and encourage him. For the next 12 years, Smokey comforted many physically injured and suffering soldiers.

Benefits of AAT

Early studies suggest AAT may help lower blood pressure, improve cardiopulmonary pressures, decrease an individual’s use of medicine, normalize the trauma experience, provide a calming agent, establish rapport, develop a therapeutic alliance with the health care provider, reduce isolation, brighten mood and affect, address grieving and loss, improve self-esteem and socialization, and decrease overall anxiety.

Service Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs

Service dogs are not considered pets and are sometimes referred to as assistance or guide dogs. In addition, “Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the [Americans with Disabilities Act].”

The Disability Rights Section of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division legally classifies and defines service dogs as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” These tasks may include guiding blind individuals, alerting deaf individuals, pulling a wheelchair, alerting others when an individual is having a seizure, reminding a person diagnosed with mental illness to take prescribed medications and calming an individual with PTSD during an anxiety attack.

The Benefits of Companion Animals for Individuals With PTSD

Animals may also offer support and comfort to individuals suffering from PTSD, a condition that affects about 7.7 million American adults.

The Devastating Effects of PTSD

PTSD affects more than 250,000 post-9/11 war veterans, or 30% of this group. The general population is also at risk of developing PTSD if they experience mugging, rape, kidnapping or captivity, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters. Symptoms of PTSD include hypervigilance, emotional numbness, difficulty showing affection, irritability, disinterest in hobbies, aggressiveness, violence and flashbacks.

How Companion Animals Support Individuals With PTSD

For individuals with PTSD, the presence of an animal may help remind them that they are no longer in danger; elicit positive emotions and warmth; support social connection; support physiological well-being; decrease sleep disturbance; lower levels of anger; decrease alcohol abuse; and reduce the severity of dissociation, depression, anxiety and other symptoms of PTSD.

Moving Forward With Animal-Assisted Therapy

Emerging research on animal-assisted therapy has demonstrated the possible benefits of companion animals for individuals who have experienced difficult and traumatic events. Therapists and social workers interested in introducing animals into therapy sessions should explore the required training and certifications for animal-assisted therapy.