Animal-assisted therapy can be used as a complementary practice in eating disorder recovery, providing a sense of calm and comfort in healthcare appointments. Animal-assisted therapy often involves a dog, cat, horse, or another animal, and is usually used in addition to other practices along the recovery journey. Animals show love and affection unconditionally , providing comfort and support that is readily accepted and trusted1. Having positive emotions associated with the animal can steer clients away from any negative thoughts that we may be having, as it is challenging to focus on both the positive and the negative ones at the same time. Additionally, the animal can act as a buffer during uncomfortable conversations, making it easier for clients to open up, and to cope with certain feelings1. It helps bring forth feelings of trust while providing a distraction, lessensingthe burden of a serious conversation and helping clients to feel more comfortable. Animals can provide a warm, comforting feeling that one doesn’t’ necessarily get from speaking with a healthcare professional alone.
These feelings of trust, love, feeling calm, and positive emotions are beneficial in the recovery process. Clients can sometimes feel reserved or guarded, and an animal helps them to feel more at ease. Often the presence of an eating disorder can lead to a negative impact on one’s relationships with others as loved ones tend to be shut out. With the addition of animal-assisted therapy, clients can start to experience those feelings of love, acceptance, affection, and support again, which can potentially have a positive impact on healing other relationships in their lives. Petting a dog while talking to a healthcare team member can help clients to feel more protected and less stressed or overwhelmed. It also gives clients something to look forward to that brings them joy and adds fun to an otherwise potentially stressful situation or uncomfortable task, helping to motivate them to continue attending sessions.
Just as petting a dog can be a positive distraction during a conversation, it can also be beneficial after a meal to distract clients from eating disorder behaviours or feelings. A therapy dog can help to keep clients in the present moment and help them to step away from restrictive thoughts that may be going through their minds1. Animals do not hold a false sense of what beauty should look like, and are a great reminder that everyone is deserving of love and compassion. Having therapy animals around to help support clients is a beautiful addition to the many aspects of recovery and brings forth many positive benefits for one’s emotional well-being.
Longbottom, our therapy dog-in-training, accompanies our Lead Dietitian Jillian in all her sessions with clients. In November, Longbottom will be evaluated and officially become certified as a therapy dog! Until then, Longbottom stays close to Jillian and gives everyone a high five on their way out of the office (as seen in the photo).
- Patricia Flaherty Fischette (2017). Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as an adjunctive treatment for eating disorders: exploration of AAT through the lens of attachment and affection regulation. Retrieved from: https://search-proquest-com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/psycinfo/docview/1957279631/477AF25A9BE04DC9PQ/1?accountid=15115