Animals can play an important role in therapy for the betterment of the patient’s social, emotional and psychological functioning. When it comes to the treatment of eating disorders, pets can be a valuable asset to decrease certain key aspects of symptoms that comes with disordered eating.
The interactive process between animal and patient has been shown to improve the recovery progress in a positive way for those with psychological disorders. In general animals are trained for a specific purpose of the therapy type in question or the animal’s natural characteristics are picked for its particular suitability to the work. The traits, whether they are trained and/or hand-picked are beneficial in a way that the animal’s presence or skill can ease psychological symptoms such as anxiety or depression. The animal’s acute intuition can pick up on the patient’s subtle signals of distress, mind space or body language. When a patient is deep in their mental torment, the animal can serve as motivation to bring the patient out of their internal state through interaction.
Many studies has been conducted and research on the topic is continuously growing. Often times the focus of the studies, among many, has been, in regards to the benefits for eating disorders, for the animal to redirect the patient’s self-absorbed into caring for another being and in so doing, shifting motivation to work on their health. This, in my opinion can lead to a slight misinterpretation of the mindset in patients with eating disorders. Although the focus is patient-oriented and mainly based on the patient’s active role as caregiver and the co-interaction between the pet and the patient as a means to transference of responsibility. This could be explained in that the patient is seen as the one being responsible for the betterment of their condition by caring for the dog and the dog taking a passive role as the symbol being cared for. I would say that this view might not take into consideration the mindset of a patient with eating disorder as a so called “expert “ in taking care of others and through this, neglecting their recovery process as being done for themselves. It can be understood in that victims of eating disorders are vulnerable in their mental and emotional state and their hyper sensitivity is turned against them. An interesting approach in the field that is specifically directed towards the work of animal assisted therapy for patients with eating disorders and that takes in those important factors, is for instance done by Anjana Gort, the founder of MissionPuppy in Netherlands. Her dogs are specifically trained for the therapeutic role of providing active care for the patient and being alert to the emotional and physical signals caused by the eating disorder. Her dogs are taught to quickly react by curling up into their client’s lap to provide warmth when the patient’s body temperature drops by their low blood pressure, something that is common in patients with low weight. The dogs are intent on seeking eye contact or give touch when the patient draws too deep into their tormented minds or when their emotional distress gets overwhelming. They alert their client when mealtimes need to be had and they also keep very close and hold body contact during the duration of the meal to reduce anxiety levels. The active role of providing care is in the dog and the patient is the one being cared for. The gentle, loving and intuitive nature of the dogs is important for the work in assisting the patient. Through those elements, both the dog’s qualities and trained skills acts as stress reduction in the patient in a way that the dog is assistant, companion and aid. More so, the dog provides peace and the lowering of the stress hormone Cortisol in the patient, activating the increased levels of Oxytocin, the calming hormone, making it easier for the patient to further work on other related issues pertaining to the disorder.
In summary, animal assisted therapy is a valuable complement to other treatment forms and the approach given in both studies and research can bring different angles in both how the patient’s- as well as the pet’s role plays in the interaction between human and animal and in terms of treatment aspects. With eating disorders being such a complex condition it would be interesting to see more in-depth work and analysis of the correlation between mindset and the effects of the treatment, especially if we take into account that the benefits of animal assisted therapy has shown such promising results. In fact, that special healing bond is something that should be explored further in practice and theory.