Penn State researchers to study animal-assisted therapy for abused children

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Animals have been used in therapy for decades to assist with a person’s physical, emotional and social well-being to reduce anxiety and facilitate healing. Until recently, however, there has been little scientific evidence to show the effectiveness of animals in these treatments.

Penn State researchers were recently awarded a Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant to learn more about animal-assisted therapy in child-abuse situations.

Principal investigator Brian Allen, a co-funded faculty member at Penn State’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, and his team will be analyzing the effectiveness of integrating animals into Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy —TF-CBT.

“TF-CBT is a structured, 12-session treatment for children who have experienced maltreatment such as physical or sexual abuse or exposure to inter-partner violence,” Allen explained. “During the treatment, the child is gradually exposed to their memories and thoughts related to their maltreatment. We are examining whether animal-assisted therapy may improve treatment outcomes reduce patient dropout, and/or improve the process for children during sessions.”

Some believe the presence of animals allows children to better cope with distress and thereby allow for greater discussion of traumatic memories, as well as improve the rapport between the child and clinician. “For these reasons, nearly one-third of mental health clinicians serving maltreated children reported being somewhat likely to integrate animals during their sessions,” said Allen. “Despite this, there is relatively little data to support its effectiveness, and there are no guidelines on their use.”

To gauge the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy, Allen and his team will look at approximately 60 maltreated children ages six to 17. Half of the group will receive animal-assisted therapy during their TF-CBT sessions, while the other half will undergo therapy without the animals. “We will compare the groups and measure outcomes such as the improvement of post-traumatic stress, along with reductions in depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems,” Allen said. “Our ultimate goal is to determine if animals enhance or weaken the effects of TF-CBT.”

Researchers will also look into other factors, including therapy retention rates, child and care-giver satisfaction ratings, and how often treatments were missed or shortened due to the animal being unavailable or disruptive.

Additionally, the therapy animals will be assessed for stress as a result of them being present during treatment. The research team will be working with Nancy Dreschel, instructor of small-animal science at Penn State, who is an expert on the assessment of stress response in dogs.

Researchers will measure animal stress by assessing saliva cortisol levels in the therapy animals along with behavioral responses. Cortisol is a hormone that becomes elevated in the saliva during times of conflict or stress.

“This study will be the first to address animal-assisted therapy for the treatment of maltreated children along with determining the impact of participation on the animals,” said Allen. In the future, Allen would like to expand the study to include a larger group of children to further investigate animal-assisted therapy on TF-CBT and the impacts on the children and animals in the sessions.

Other researchers on the project include Chad Shenk, assistant professor human development and family studies at Penn State, and Ming Wang, assistant professor of public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine.

The Child Maltreatment Solutions Network is a part of the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State.

Last Updated April 27, 2017