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Animal-Assisted Interventions and PTSD

Haley Etheridge, OTD, OTR/L
A closeup of a person and their hands hugging a boxer; the feeling is one of sadness and comfort. Photo by Myriams Fotos from Pixabay.
A closeup of a person and their hands hugging a boxer; the feeling is one of sadness and comfort. Photo by Myriams Fotos from Pixabay.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health disorder that develops after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Post-traumatic stress disorder can affect both children and adults. Events that can lead to PTSD include the following:

  • Being involved in a vehicle crash, terrorist attack, or natural disaster.
  • Being abused, harassed, bullied, or violently attacked.
  • Seeing other people being injured or killed.
  • Being diagnosed with a life-threatening condition.
  • Losing someone close to you in an upsetting circumstance, or learning that traumatic events have affected someone close to you.

A soldier in combat gear kissing the head of a dog

Intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions are the four main types of symptoms experienced by those with PTSD. These symptoms can drastically affect a person’s ability to participate in everyday life.

We’d like to take a brief look at animal-assisted interventions (AAI) and PTSD based on existing research. Public awareness of PTSD is often in the context of combat veterans, and much of the research into AAI and PTSD has been conducted in this population. However, PTSD can be present in other forms and in other populations.

Service Animals and PTSD

A dog wearing a SERVICE DOG vest checking in on a person in a pool

Research supports the use of service dogs to decrease symptoms and increase quality of life for those with PTSD. Psychiatric service animals are defined as those individually trained to do work or perform specific tasks for people with mental health disabilities, such as PTSD. Some of these tasks include waking a person from nightmares, leading an individual to a building exit during an anxiety attack, grounding an individual through nudging, pawing, or leaning, and bringing medication to a person on command.

In a pilot study conducted by HABRI, the effects of service dogs on veterans with PTSD were explored. Compared to veterans without a service dog, veterans with PTSD paired with a service dog were found to have the following differences:

  • Lower overall PTSD symptom severity
  • Increased ability to cope with flashbacks and anxiety
  • Decreased frequency of nightmares
  • Decreased incidences of sleep disturbance
  • Lower overall anxiety, depression, and anger
  • Higher levels of companionship and social integration
  • Decreased social isolation
  • Increased ability to participate in activities outside of the home
  • Increased levels of resilience and overall life satisfaction
  • Decreased use of prescription drugs for anxiety, sleep, and pain

Bridging the Gap

While providing a service dog to every individual with PTSD may seem like the answer to helping individuals with this diagnosis, it’s not that simple. Service dogs are in high demand and cannot become immediately available to every individual. It takes about two years to train a service dog, and it costs $20,000 to $30,000 to train a single psychiatric service dog; resources are not readily available to allow training of service dogs for every single person who could benefit from them. Therefore, alternative options should be explored. AAI supplied by volunteers with therapy animals is another evidence-based way to provide short-term benefits to numerous individuals with PTSD.

Therapy animals can be incorporated into PTSD treatment in a variety of ways. They can be present during therapy sessions with mental health providers, or can provide animal-assisted activities during visits to doctors’ offices, foster care programs, or assisted living facilities. A systematic literature review by Dr. Marguerite O’Haire collected

A veteran petting a mini horse wearing a Pet Partners vest

evidence supporting the use of animal-assisted activities for individuals with PTSD. Studies found that AAI for individuals with PTSD can have the following effects:

  • Reduce depression.
  • Reduce symptom severity.
  • Reduce anxiety.
  • Act as a comforting reminder that danger is no longer present.
  • Facilitate social interactions and reduce loneliness.
  • Create a positive external locus of attention.
  • Increase oxytocin secretion, thereby reducing arousal and anxiety.

This research suggests that AAI offered by screened therapy animal teams like those registered by Pet Partners are a feasible option to assist clients with PTSD.

Pet Partners Resources on AAI and PTSD

Our continuing education course Working with Veterans highlights strategies that can be used to effectively interact with a population that regularly experiences PTSD symptoms. Visit our Online Education page for more information and to sign up.

A Devon rex cat curled up in the arms of a person. Photo by Dannie Sayers.

Our partnership with Veterans Administration is designed to bring therapy animals and the benefits of animal-assisted interventions to Veterans Health Administration facilities, which may include the opportunity to work with veterans who are receiving treatment for PTSD. This partnership allows for the option of registered therapy animals other than dogs visiting VHA facilities. Registered Pet Partners teams can learn more about this partnership and how to begin working with VHA facilities by searching for “veterans administration” in the Resource Library. VHA facilities interested in starting therapy animal visiting programs are encouraged to contact us for more information.

Our Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (AACR) training for registered Pet Partners volunteers provides education in mental health first aid and strategies for interacting with people who have experienced crisis that can also be helpful when providing AAI in contexts beyond crisis response. Visit our AACR page for more information.

If you work for a facility that would benefit from therapy animal visits to support clients with PTSD, we encourage you to post a volunteer opportunity. Pet Partners provides guidance for facilities on safe therapy animal visits during COVID-19.

PTSD Resources

Pet Partners supports the use of animal-assisted interventions as part of addressing mental health conditions, but we know that PTSD is multidimensional and benefits from a team treatment approach. The following resources provide more information about post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, treatments, and support.