Can Horses and Dolphins Help You Kick the Habit?

Animal-assisted therapy may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to recovery. It works, but how effectively?

horse-dolphinWhen you think of rehab, do you think of horses? What about dolphins? Wolves? While many addiction treatment facilities have turned to so-called holistic therapies like meditation and acupuncture to augment more traditional treatments, they have also begun to add animal-assisted therapies to their stable (no pun intended). However, while these therapies might show loads of anecdotal evidence of patients “feeling better” when they pet a dog or ride a horse, are these therapies effective? And, are they worth the cost if they only offer short-term improvement?

Animal-assisted therapy

Animal-assisted therapy, loosely speaking, has been around for a long time; in fact, it dates back to at least the 18th century. A PubMed or Google Scholar search will turn up hundreds of studies showing animal-assisted activities (AAA) or animal-assisted therapies (AAT) as having varying degrees of effectiveness for a wide range of diseases and conditions. Studies have shown that it reduces aggression and depression, anxiety, and pain in psychiatric patients; assists in the neurorehabilitation of patients with cerebral palsy, developmental disorders, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, stroke, and mental disorders; and decreases agitation while increasing socialability in patients with dementia. A recent article in The Lancet summed up the many one-off studies: AAA and AAT have shown some degree of improvement on mood in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, anhedonia in schizophrenia, and gait and balance in multiple sclerosis; as well as helping some people with mood disorders and addiction problems, and children with physical disabilities like autism, epilepsy, Angelman’s syndrome, dyslexia, or Tourette’s syndrome.

The science behind it

Patients who take part in AAT typically report feeling calmer and happier—and objectively, their stress measurements go down. One study showed that dog visits canreduce pain and pain-related symptoms in patients by decreasing catecholamines and increasing endorphins.

A study led by the University of Rostock’s Dr. Andrea Beetz reviewed evidence from 69 studies on human-animal interactions and proposed that these interactions up levels of oxytocin. Sometimes called the “bonding hormone,” oxytocin promotes a sense of intimacy, increases trust, and decreases fear. When we interact with animals, frequently domesticated dogs and cats, many people with social disorders—social anxiety, for instance, or autism—are able to relax and therefore, “open” up.

Many hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers now use dog-assisted therapy, “probably more do than don’t,” says Dr. Margaret Nepps, a clinical psychologist at Lancaster General Hospital in Pennsylvania. In these sessions, patients are encouraged to pet the dog, make it sit or fetch, and in general, express their feelings. “To some degree [dogs play a role of] social lubricant,” Nepps says. They can get people talking—if not to others, then to the dog itself—when otherwise they wouldn’t. “[Dogs] help people to feel that they are a little more normal, to make them feel good because the dog is responding to them, to get them to open up with their own emotions.”

In a recent study, Nepps showed that interacting with a volunteer Border Collie during group therapy sessions worked as well as the hospital’s traditional stress management program among patients with a variety of psychiatric diagnoses.

Equine-assisted psychotherapy

Dogs aren’t the only animals used in AAT. Riding horses as a form of physical or psychological therapy dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years. However, it’s only been in the past several decades that it has gained traction for treating mental health and substance use disorders. In fact, if you search for rehabs that offer equine therapy, you might be surprised to find that many do—including leading addiction treatment centers like Hazelden, Promises, and others. According to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), there are over 600 programs in 49 countries that use “equine therapy (horse therapy) to address mental health and human development needs.”

Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) works not by teaching patients how to ride a horse, but by “setting up ground activities involving the horses, which will require the client or group to apply certain skills,” including “non-verbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking and problem-solving, leadership, work, taking responsibility, teamwork and relationships, confidence, and attitude.” According to EAGALA, EAP can be used to address “behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, PTSD, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, relationship problems and communication needs.”

Dede Beasley, an equine-assisted psychotherapist at The Recovery Ranch just outside of Nashville, uses an open-ended approach to horse-human interaction. “I think all animals are therapeutic if you’re enjoying the animal.” Beasley says. In her practice, she looks for what she calls “roadblocks” to recovery; these are often reflected in the patient’s interaction with the horse. “Working from a somatic point of view, there’s a lot going on that tells us where people are and where they want to go.” Read more “the fix”…


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