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Studies previously have suggested that owning a pet can be beneficial to a person’s mental health, so it’s only fitting that there has been an increase in research regarding the study of animal-assisted therapy and the roles these creatures can play in the healing process.

As NPR reports, a field of research devoted to animal-assisted therapy developed once researchers concluded a positive, therapeutic bond existed between animals and humans in approximately 1970. Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, told NPR that the focus of recent studies has been how interacting with animals can raise a person’s oxytocin hormone levels.

“That is very beneficial for us,” she said. “Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting.”

Since the field began, the number of dogs, cats, birds and horses that have been placed in areas such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, jails or mental health facilities because of their therapeutic benefit has increased substantially.

For example, psychologist Aubrey Fine told NPR that using dogs, cockatoos and even a bearded dragon has helped relax the troubled children with which he works.

“One of the things that’s always been known is that the animals help a clinician go under the radar of a child’s consciousness, because the child is much more at ease and seems to be much more willing to reveal,” he said.

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Also read Counseling Today’s feature story on animal-assisted therapy, “Counselor’s best friend,” from our August 2011 issue, and check out ACA’s Animal Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network.

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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