No philosophers so thoroughly comprehend us as dogs and horses. –Herman Melville 
What is it about an animal that captivates our hearts and minds? We are enamored by the beauty, grace, and even sometimes fierceness of animals both domestic and wild. We can be calmed and elated in the same moment by the mysterious world of nature’s other sentient beings.
In the late eighteenth century, the York Retreat in England elevated the standards of psychiatric treatment facilities worldwide. To promote socialization skills, small domestic animals were kept in the gardens where patients were allowed to roam freely. The interaction with the animals proved significant in helping many patients regain interest in social interaction and was the first documented animal-assisted therapy program.
For hundreds of years, researchers have tested the therapeutic outcomes of human-animal interactions. Although research results vary, there are significant findings supporting the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapies to reduce pain and stress. Simply petting or interacting with a dog, cat, or horse releases endorphins and oxytocin, the neurochemicals responsible for our feelings of happiness.
While dogs are the most common therapy animals, cats and horses regularly assist human healing processes. Several reported benefits of animal-assisted therapy include reduced blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and need for medication. Increased trust, focus, self-control, and empathy are also consistently experienced following animal-assisted therapy sessions. 
As with most alternative healing approaches, animal-assisted therapy has its opponents. Critics question the validity of research provided, citing repeated improper testing methods and biased reporting results. Other arguments against animals in therapeutic settings challenge whether the results are long lasting and ethical concerns regarding animal welfare.
So why utilize animals to enhance therapeutic settings? Obviously, there are many ways to improve our health without enlisting animal assistance. The answer lies in the animals’ ability to share the power of present moment awareness.
Most of the stress humans deal with on a daily basis is fueled by thought processes. When we are dealing with physical, mental, or emotional challenges, we become consumed with worry. Uncertainty about past decisions and concerns regarding the future maintain our elevated stress levels.
Animals, using their senses, live in the present moment. As far as we know, animals don’t worry about the past or spend countless hours creating scenarios to predict future outcomes. Animals simply react and respond to life, always going with the flow.
When we connect with animals in the present moment, our debilitating thoughts are interrupted. As our minds become still, we become more aware of our senses. When we fully engage our senses, our minds remain focused, staying away from the dysfunctional thought processes and going with the flow.
Animal-assisted therapy facilitates present moment awareness, allowing our minds to remain calm and our bodies balanced. While there are always exceptions, most animals participating as therapists are very well treated. And, even if the results of animal-assisted therapy are not long lasting, a moment without suffering is a moment closer towards healing.
Melville, Herman. Redburn, His First Voyage: Being the Sailor-Boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service. Evanston [Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1969. Print.
Serpell, James A. “Animal-assisted interventions in historical perspective.”Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice 2 (2006): 3-20.
”What Is Animal Assisted Therapy?” CRC Health Group. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 June 2015.
Author: Kevin Rose, LMT, CST-D
As a Licensed Massage Therapist and Diplomate-Certified Craniosacral Therapist, Kevin has logged over 25,000 hours of clinical practice in the field of complimentary manual therapies. Kevin has also logged thousands of fieldwork hours in human-animal interaction studies. Combining this fieldwork with his extensive training in human physiology, Kevin created The CATalyst, a human-wild animal interaction experience and an extraordinary approach to wellness and peace.