Animal-assisted therapy

20. October 2020

Animals help to heal people

Not only do animals make you healthy, they also make you happy. According to Wikipedia, animal-assisted therapy is the name for alternative medical treatment methods in which animals are used in order to heal or at least alleviate symptoms of psychiatric, psychological/neurotic and neurological disorders, and mental health issues and/psychological disabilities.

Animals help people to heal

Cats, dogs, horses, donkeys, alpacas and even rabbits, guinea pigs and farm animals are used today for animal-assisted work with patients, and with excellent results. There is a wide range of animal-assisted therapy on offer, and the effect it has is amazing.

The trend came from America, where dolphins are used to treat children and adolescents. Dolphin-assisted therapy is particularly helpful for children with disabilities or behavioural problems. The disadvantage: a trained dolphin costs up to $150,000. A two-week therapy course will cost between 5,000 and 10,000 euros, is not covered by any health insurance companies in Germany and does not include travel expenses. But there is also a further critique of dolphin-assisted therapy.

Animal rights activists in particular speak out against it and probably rightly so: in their natural habitat, dolphins swim up to 100 km a day at depths of up to 500 m, which is not adequately replicated by a tank.

Animal-assisted therapy in Germany

In this country, animal-assisted therapy is already being used in retirement homes, nurseries, schools and clinics. Animals are increasingly playing the role of co-therapist. They help people with psychological disorders, dementia and children with physical disabilities. Unsurprisingly the most popular animal for this type of therapy is man’s best friend.

For more than 10,000 years, dogs have accompanied humans as our protectors, helpers and friends.Retirement home residents find animal-assisted therapy and petting sessions with small dogs soothing and relaxing. This is particularly important for many neurological and psychiatric diseases, depression and disabilities.

No health insurance coverage for animal-assisted therapy

It remains completely incomprehensible that in most cases, animal-assisted therapy is not covered by health insurance. The argument: there is not yet enough scientific evidence to support it. This argument can be clearly contradicted: just look at Switzerland. In Switzerland, for example, equine-assisted therapy is covered by health insurance companies, so we can therefore assume that animal-assisted therapy offers a health benefit.

Equine-assisted therapy is a type of physiotherapy with the help of a trained horse. It is used in all age groups for disorders of the central nervous system and the musculoskeletal system. Therapy horses can even be helpful for people who are paralysed on one side. Therapy sessions cost 50 to 60 euros on average and last around 40 minutes. Statutory health insurance companies are no longer allowed to pay for physiotherapy treatments on horseback.

Equine-assisted therapy should not be confused with therapeutic riding. Therapeutic riding is about the psyche of those affected. Therapeutic riding is widespread, but in Germany it is not financed by health insurance companies. Therapeutic riding can only be covered by health or nursing care insurance companies, social welfare offices or youth welfare offices in special cases.

The hundehelfenheilen-Stiftung (Dogs Help Heal Association) and other non-profit organisations in Germany often step in and cover the costs of therapy. However, all of them are dependent on donations. Important to know: youth welfare offices in Germany can promote animal-assisted therapy for children and young people at their discretion, but the approach varies from state to state.

According to the survey, further prerequisites include a doctor’s prescription, the failure of previous measures or urgent educational reasons.

Animals and therapy: what does science say? 

The interest in the therapeutic or educational use of animals in Germany has increased immensely over the past two decades.

Animal visiting services in retirement homes, nursing homes and children’s homes, schools and nurseries have become much more frequent, and in some cases a very popular part of everyday therapeutic or educational life.

Demand is still not being met, as is shown by the frequent enquiries from institutions wishing to set up visiting services. This continuing interest on the part of the population is offset by a clear lack of scientific research, especially in Germany.

Dr. Anke Prothmann, research assistant at the Klinikum rechts der Isar, TU Munich:

“Animals are an important motivator and building block on the road to recovery. We were able to achieve our therapy goals in over 90 percent of cases.”

The exact definition of animal-assisted therapy is:

Animal-assisted therapy” includes deliberately planned, educational, psychological and socially integrative services with animals for children, adolescents, adults and the elderly with cognitive, socio-emotional and motor impairments, behavioural disorders and special needs.

It also includes health-promoting, preventative and rehabilitative measures”. These are supported by ESAAT- the European Society for Animal-Assisted Therapy. This is the European umbrella organisation for animal-assisted therapy.

ESAAT also monitors the situation to ensure that only trained specialists carry out therapy sessions: animal-assisted therapy is carried out by a specialist with specific training in animal-assisted therapy and continuing professional development.

Only therapists who meet ESAAT’s criteria and are accredited by ESAAT count as specialists.

Should you or your relatives need help, you should seek advice from ESAAT.