Animal Assisted Interventions for Trauma and PTSD

The Role that Animals Play in Treating Domestic Violence Trauma and PTSD

When times got tough, my friends and I used to joke that all we really wanted was to switch lives with a well-kept house pet. I must admit, it still sometimes seems like a good gig. I thought there could be nothing better. Then, in 2009 I adopted my first dog. After a few months of bonding, I came to see that the only thing better than being a well-kept pet might be owning one. My dogs, I adopted a second in 2013, have come to be the greatest companions in my life. They are a source of endless snuggles, kisses, fun, and unconditional love. As great as these things are to me, I can only imagine how great they must feel to someone who suffers from trauma. In fact, the health benefits of owning a pet have been known for years in the medical community. Pet owners show lower blood pressure, heart-rate, and risk of heart disease; just to name a few benefits. Pets have even been used as therapy animals in the elderly and sick populations for decades now. There is currently a growth of promising research to show that animals can help with those who have suffered from trauma as well. There is an ever-expanding school of thought that animals are the missing link in treating trauma and PTSD patients (Time).

Animals and Domestic Violence Trauma

Several studies indicate that Animal Assisted Interventions (AAIs) in trauma and PTSD often work better than other kinds of therapeutic intervention. However, these studies also indicate that the amount of help an animal can offer varies widely depending on the specific type of trauma experienced. The most beneficial research outcomes have been for abuse-related trauma (Marguerite E. O’Haire, et al). While more research needs to be done, this is an especially promising outcome for those suffering domestic violence (DV) trauma and PTSD. A prior blog post showed that DV, especially intimate partner violence (IPV), trauma can be particularly hard to treat. There are often social and financial limitations on the level of care a DV trauma victim can gain access to. This is why AAIs show so much hope for these victims in particular. While an IPV trauma victim may not be able to gain access to traditional treatment modalities, it is likely that they can enjoy the therapeutic benefits of an animal.

Just What Are the Therapeutic Benefits of Animals?

Reduction of symptoms

AAIs showed a reduction in both Anxiety and Depression symptoms for trauma patients. The most promising result, however, was an across the board decrease in other symptoms of PTSD: such as suicidal ideation, risky behavior, and substance abuse.

Social Connection

AAIs also lead to an increased sense of social competence and connection for those who suffered from trauma. This was particularly true for those patients whose AAI involved the owning of a dog. Patients who worked with a dog showed an increase in social activity and less social withdrawal after the intervention.

Life Satisfaction

Those who suffered from trauma and received an AAI also showed an increase in their level of life satisfaction. Several studies reported AAI patients felt they had a better quality of life after the intervention (Marguerite E. O’Haire, et al).

Why Animals Help

The exact reason for the therapeutic benefits of animals is not fully understood. However, if we look at it intuitively, it is not that hard to see how animals, especially pets, help those who have suffered trauma. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the unconditional love an animal gives to the victim plays a large role. I can tell you myself that coming home to beings who calm me down, are always glad to see me, and love me no matter what condition I am in is one of the greatest joys that I experience. It never seems to get old either – for me or them. We are ALWAYS happy to see each other. However, pets offer something else to their owners that more and more evidence is suggesting is the real root of their healing power for trauma sufferers. This is the fact that animals give their caretaker, whether an owner of a pet or a worker on a farm, a sense and purpose. This is something that trauma victims have often felt denied for a long time. Trauma victims usually suffer low self-esteem. If you are told you are worthless enough times, it becomes your reality. Enter an animal, who depends on the trauma victim for their very existence. The victim must feed the animal and give it exercise. They must clean up after the animal and care for it when it is sick. These tasks often make someone who is feeling worthless feel like suddenly they are not just wanted, but needed: and isn’t that the greatest gift anyone can get? (Element Behavioral Health)