Green Care: Animal Assisted Human Therapy

“A mother who wanted to open her son’s grave” – a column written by Zahir u Din in Greater Kashmir on October 4, 2015 is just one of the many painful stories from my motherland. When nothing worked during three months of counselling, a pair of sheep arranged by an international NGO provided the needed solace.

Using nature to nurture good health is an old and well-established idea. Over a long period of time, the value and importance of this relationship has slowly and steadily been ignored. However, the trend is changing now and there is a growing movement towards the concept of ‘Green Care’.

The human-animal bond is defined as “a mutually beneficial dynamic relationship between people and other animals that is influenced by behaviours that are essential to the health and well-being of both.” Included in this definition is “emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, other animals, and the environment”. Thus the role animals play in the lives of humans goes far beyond their survival needs.

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), a goal directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. The technique that involves specifically trained animals and professionals (working as co-therapists) is gaining importance as a highly potential adjunctive treatment modality for human patients. An animal serves as a social companion, social catalyst or the subject for work that a person manages to accomplish successfully thus enhancing his self-efficacy and coping ability. Service animals that are trained to assist people with disabilities fall under the category of Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA). These activities do not involve specific treatment goals; the trained animal may be handled by volunteers, and the animal may be used for entertainment purposes. They are more casual and spontaneous without a focus on treatment goals or progress.

Two models of AAT (with scheduled sessions and specific treatment goals) are generally followed: triangular and star shaped. The star shape involves four participants: patient, therapist, animal handler and the animal, whilst in the triangular model, there is the patient, the animal and the therapist (who is also the handler).

The therapeutic role of companion animals is well established for physically challenged, psychiatric patients, emotionally disturbed people, prisoners, drug addicts, elderly and the children. The programme is particularly beneficial to the clients with anxiety and depression concerns. It helps in establishing rapport and trust essential for the therapeutic environment.  It provides a catalyst for discussion amongst therapist and client and/or between group members when utilized in group therapy. Consequently, decrease in the symptoms and concerns of anxiety and/or depression is noticed in the clients. Contact with companion animals is also associated with positive changes in cardiovascular functioning and concentration of various neurotransmitters, reduction in psychosomatic disorders and afflictions. Research has revealed that after myocardial infarctions or severe angina pectoris 28% of non-owners, but only 5.7% of pet owners died during one year of the study period. Social support from pets may provide replacement for lack of human support, release from relation obligations, enhance reorganization, re-establish routines, and “top up” existing human support. It has been reported that the elderly people and the schizophrenic patients subjected to AAT are more likely to initiate and participate in longer conversations than those receiving Non-Animal Therapy (NAT) e.g. arts and crafts.

The therapeutic role of horses and farm animals has now started receiving due attention for people suffering from physical, psychiatric or social problems. The interventions may be offered as a specialised service or as part of a wider service with varied work or activities in the farm. The patients may care for and ride horses or ponies, or work with cattle, sheep, goats, rabbits, guinea pigs or chickens. The animals positively affect the human physical and physiological health, both involving psychological components. Stimulating exercise and physical condition reduces stress and enhances mental well-being. Through psychological mechanisms improved protection against psychosomatic diseases and afflictions is also expected. Intervention with dairy cattle for patients with severe mental health illness (mainly mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and schizophrenia) show lower anxiety and higher self-efficacy. Therapeutic horse riding improves self-confidence, social competence and quality of life.

As an adjunctive treatment the benefits of AAT are not restricted to people suffering from psychological and psychiatric disorders but also in patients with hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and chronic illnesses including cancer and AIDS. With the rational use of AAT, quality of life is bound to improve. However, the zoonotic infections (that can pass from animals to humans) should be taken care of while instituting any form of AAT.

In Kashmir, three decades of sustained strife has left a generation traumatized and more than half of the residents developed mental depression. The last years protracted clampdown, blockade of the internet and the coronavirus pandemic, all together, and one after the other, added to our miseries and worsened the mental health crisis. Consequently, the supplementation of the standard treatment protocols assumes profound significance. We just observed this year’s World Mental Health Day, the 10th of October, 2020. This occasions instils hope that  the stake holders highlight the significance of AAT as an auxiliary component of the treatment protocol.

Dr. Mujeeb Fazili Professor & Head, Division of Veterinary Clinical Complex, FVSc & AH, SKUAST-Kashmir