06 May 2017

RESEARCH - Study to Analyze Effectiveness of Animal Assisted Therapy for Abused Children

Penn State researchers have been 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.

Brian Allen, a co-funded faculty member at Penn State’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, 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 told Penn State News.

During treatment the child is exposed to their memories and and thoughts related to the abuse.

Allen and his team will look at approximately 60 maltreated children ages six to 17,
half of whom will receive animal-assisted therapy during their TF-CBT sessions.

“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 at therapy retention rates, child and caregiver satisfaction ratings, and how often treatments were missed or shortened due to the animal being unavailable or disruptive.

While the children’s responses are being measured, so are the animals.

Therapy animals will be assessed for stress as a result of being present during treatment.

Researchers will measure animal stress by assessing saliva cortisol levels in the therapy animals, as well as the animals’ behaviour.

“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.

Many believe the presence of animals helps children cope with distress - allowing for greater discussion of traumatic memories, as well as improving the rapport between child and clinician.

This study will provide more data about the effectiveness of animal assisted therapy, specifically for children who have been abused.

Penn State’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network's research efforts focus on the causes, prevention, detection, consequences, and treatment of child abuse and neglect.

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