Why Animal Therapy in Treatment Is So Comforting

Dog chewing on a cane

Eating disorder treatment at any stage can be strenuous and bring about many obstacles and challenges. There are often several intense factors related to eating disorder treatment, as an individual learns to heal from a complex illness that likely affected several aspects of their life.

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, are chronic diseases that typically require professional intervention for healing and recovery.

Many treatment programs offer a variety of modalities that can help meet an individual’s needs and support holistic healing from an eating disorder. One such modality in eating disorder treatment center settings may be pet/animal therapy.

Understanding Animal Therapy

When it comes to animals like cats, dogs, horses, etc., many people may not be aware of the healing and therapeutic potential, particularly for those struggling with mental health issues. Animal therapy, or animal assisted therapy (AAT), is a therapeutic modality that involves animals as a form of treatment.

A variety of animals can be used for animal-assisted therapy, including farm animals and domesticated pets. Research has also demonstrated that animals can help improve mental health, and many eating disorder treatment facilities include an option for animal therapy alongside more conventional treatment approaches [1].

Animal therapy is founded on the relationship and bond that is formed between humans and animals, which can improve a person’s overall quality of life and well-being [2].

Hands on interactions with animals along with physical contact in a therapeutic setting can support a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging to a person.

Particularly individuals who are struggling with mental illnesses, including eating disorders, these types of interactions with animals can support a more positive sense of well-being.

Animal Therapy in Eating Disorder Treatment

It is important to note that animal therapy alone cannot treat or cure eating disorders; although, when combined with a multidisciplinary and comprehensive treatment plan, animal therapy can be a powerful part of the eating disorder recovery process.

Woman utilizing animal therapy for eating disorder treatment

Animal therapy is a form of eating disorder treatment that can be offered on a variety of levels – from inpatient to outpatient and everything in between. While not all eating disorder treatment programs offer animal therapy, it is something that is commonly offered as part of a therapeutic approach to healing and recovery.

Eating disorders are influenced by a variety of complex factors, including biological components and in many situations, the experience of trauma.

In response to trauma, a susceptible individual may develop an eating disorder as coping with difficult emotions and circumstances surrounding the traumatic experience.

Eating disorder treatment helps a person develop more effective coping skills that alleviate the need for engaging in dangerous eating disorder behaviors, though reaching this point can be extremely difficult.

Animal therapy can be especially helpful for a person recovering from trauma and learning new means of interacting with others. Having positive interactions with animals through animal therapy can be healing in that a person is able to renegotiate their inherent worth and value through these meaningful experiences.

Finding Comfort in Animals

For many recovering individuals from eating disorders, engaging positively with animals in therapy can be life-changing. Many individuals with eating disorders often lose their sense of self-worth, find it difficult to engage meaningfully in relationships, disconnect from others, and/or withdraw from activities they once enjoyed.

The simplest acts of engaging with an animal, caring for an animal, or simply being in the presence of a nurturing animal can help a person feel safe, giving the opportunity to reconnect with oneself in many ways that were lost in the eating disorder.

Woman enjoying equine therapy

Therapists who bring animals into sessions are typically perceived as less threatening, which can help facilitate a relationship between therapist/patient [3].

If you are in recovery from an eating disorder and interested in learning more about how animal therapy can be incorporated into your treatment, you can discuss this option with your current treatment team.

In many situations, animal therapy is incorporated into an eating disorder treatment program, though some options may be available on an outpatient level. It is important to work with a qualified therapist who can facilitate animal therapy sessions.

Participating in animal therapy as part of eating disorder treatment can positively support your healing and recovery journey.

About the Author:

Crystal Headshot 2

Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC is a Contributing Writer for Eating Disorder Hope.

Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing. As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work with EDH and nutrition private practice.


[1]:Time Health, “Science Says Your Pet is Good For Your Mental Health”, http://time.com/4728315/science-says-pet-good-for-mental-health/ Accessed 11 July 2017
[2]: Martindale, B. (2008). “Effect of animal-assisted therapy on engagement of rural nursing home resident”. American journal of recreation therapy. 7: 45–53.
[3]: Marx, M.; Mansfield, J.; Regier, N.; Dakheel-Ali, M.; Srihari, A.; Thein (2010). “The impact of different dog-related stimuli on engagement of persons with dementia”. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias. 25: 37–45.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on September 15, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 15, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com