Dozens of studies on animal-assisted therapy show overwhelmingly positive results, but experts are skeptical.
Swimming in a pool full of baby sea otters or playing in a pen full of soft puppies sounds like a dream come true for most people, but can these little creatures help heal our sick bodies and minds?
Animals are used for therapeutic purposes in a variety of settings, like hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, mental institutions, and special animal-assisted therapy (AAT) clinics. The goal of AAT is to improve a patient’s emotional, social, or cognitive functioning, and studies have explored the effect of AAT on a variety of disorders including Alzheimer’s disease, Down’s syndrome, and schizophrenia.
There are dozens of studies on AAT, but it’s more difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the therapy since friendly animals could easily help people feel happier temporarily — but the long-term effects aren’t as clear. In order to accurately show that AATs work, researchers have to demonstrate that the psychological benefits of the animals are lasting.
According to Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University and author of Animals and Us, the overwhelming majority of published studies report that “animals make excellent therapists.” He says that in a review of 14 clinical trials on the effects of AAT, every one of them found that AAT was effective. Together, these 14 studies measured 30 different outcomes variables, and autistic children who underwent AAT showed “statistically significant” improvements on 27 of these 30 outcomes measures.
Additionally, Herzog reports that 28 AAT studies published between 1997 and 2009 were reviewed by researchers, and that the studies reported that interacting with animals produced beneficial results for people with a wide variety of disorders including schizophrenia, developmental disorders, Down’s syndrome, and Alzheimer’s.
Here’s the bad news: despite the fact that these results make a positive case for animal-assisted therapy, they may be too good to be true.
Herzog writes for Psychology Today that “most of the clinical trials on the effectiveness of animal assisted therapy are so methodologically flawed that their conclusions cannot be trusted.”
A lot of the studies involved sample sizes that were too small to produce reliable results, and some of the studies even lacked no-treatment control groups. Additionally, many of the studies relied on self-reported data rather than objective measures, and there was no use of “blind observations” to control for any unconscious bias of the researchers.
The scientific community is also plagued with the “file drawer effect,” which means that studies that show positive results are much more likely to be published than those with negative results.
For instance, a study by the Food and Drug Administration found that 91 percent of published clinical trials show positive results on the effectiveness of antidepressant drugs. In contrast, when the results of the non-published trials were added to the analysis, antidepressants were found to be effective in only 51 percent of the studies.
Herzog asserts that this “file drawer effect” could also play a role in the overwhelming positivity found in animal-assisted therapy studies.
Unfortunately, while swimming with dolphins and sea otters can certainly provide feelings of happiness and a relief from anxieties and depression, it’s best to stick with human therapists for now.