Pawsitive Connections: Adopting Animal-Assisted Therapy in Malaysia

By Nisha Kumaravel

June 2024 FEATURE
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“She’s like this silent confidant, you know? I can pour my heart out to her, share all my darkest fears and thoughts, and she just listens. No judgment, no expectations, just acceptance. Maybe it sounds crazy, but my family would somehow be okay without me, whereas she’s someone I have to live for. I mean, who else would take care of her if I weren’t around? She gives me purpose, in a way, despite the crushing hopelessness.” — Melissa talking about her relationship with her cat, Selma.

“When I was training to be a counsellor, pursuing my Masters at a public university in Malaysia, I was most excited about conducting my thesis research on AAT. Since I own and love animals, I have seen first-hand their impact on my wellbeing. However, I was discouraged from pursuing this research by my then supervisor, who dismissed AAT as ‘juvenile’ in Malaysia. I was told I would be ‘digging my own grave’ by taking on such a topic.” — Priya, a licensed and certified counsellor in Malaysia.

“After the incident where I was sexually abused, I couldn’t sleep. I did not trust anyone and I kept getting nightmares whenever I fell asleep. The anxiety kept me up too. After I adopted a cat and played with her, it helped me relax, I could finally sleep again.” — A 30-year-old female counselling client discussing how her pet cat helped her heal.

OVER THE COURSE of history, our connection with animals has transformed in numerous ways, reflecting the varied cultural, social and economic settings of human civilisation. From the worship of the cat-like goddess Bastet in ancient Egypt to the historical collaboration between humans and wolves in hunting thousands of years ago, animals have held both a revered and utilitarian role in human society. Since then, this relationship has evolved from providing agricultural labour to cherished domestic companions.

More than that, this human-animal bond can be harnessed for psychological therapeutic interventions— Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), a growing global practice, has made its way to Malaysian soil, bringing with it a multitude of benefits, challenges and possibilities.

In traditional counselling settings, the therapeutic relationship between the counsellor and the client(s) often unfolds within the confines of an office, where a potentially unequal or uncomfortable dynamic may affect the therapy. However, with AAT, a more conducive atmosphere may be fostered by the introduction of calm, trained animals into the equation.

In the late 18th century, the Quaker York Retreat in England recorded the earliest use of rabbits and other farm animals to “enhance the humanity of the emotionally ill”. By the early 19th century, dog training began to aid blind individuals. Boris Levinson, a child psychologist, observed therapeutic interactions between a child patient and his dog, leading to the term “pet therapy” in 1964. Concurrently, Elizabeth and Samuel Corsons conducted empirical studies on canine-assisted interventions in the 1970s. Their findings highlighted benefits such as improved communication and social interaction, laying the foundation for recognising the value of AAT in mental health treatment.

Numerous studies show that interactions with therapy animals can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while promoting feelings of relaxation, joy and comfort. Physically, interactions with therapy animals have been shown to reduce blood pressure, alleviate pain and improve patients’ motor skills. Socially, AAT fosters a sense of connection, empathy and communication skills, particularly in populations with autism spectrum disorders, developmental disabilities or social anxiety.

The rise of AAT in Malaysia

Though leaden-footed, AAT is slowly gaining ground in Malaysia. A study conducted by IIUM students in Kuantan on children’s healthcare and education revealed positive outcomes in paediatric occupational therapy and educational programmes, underscoring the advantages of pet therapy in enhancing physical, mental and social well-being, leading them to advocate for the incorporation of AAT tailored for children with special needs.

Expert in Animal Physiology, Dr. Suriya Kumari from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), has successfully integrated AAT with mental healthcare for differently abled children at SK Serdang through an integrated special education programme, where children under her guidance were taught to care for low-maintenance animals such as rabbits, chickens and fish. Results show that these special needs students felt more excited to attend school, and these interactions reduced their anxiety levels.

Another pioneer, paediatrician and co-founder of AAT Green Apple Hippotherapy (GAH), Dr. Ali Azman Minhaj with his wife Iliza Ikhbal, work with horses. He explained to the Malay Mail that a horse’s distinctive three-dimensional gait transmits varied, repetitive and rhythmic movements to patients, offering sensory stimulation to the brain and nervous system, and helps to soothe children with autism. GAH also integrates games and role-playing to ensure children’s active participation, keeping them engaged and enhancing their neural processing capabilities.

AAT has also been utilised on other vulnerable populations including among the orphans and the elderly in Malaysia. The Malaysian Animal-Assisted Therapy for the Disabled and Elderly Association (PETPOSITIVE) offers free AAT, one that utilises various animals tailored to the client’s needs, assisting them to lead more positive and empowered lives. Then there is also the Dr. Dog Malaysia initiative, an AAT programme providing support to the elderly, physically challenged, mentally impaired and orphans. The programme has shown significant improvements in the level of initiative, verbal communication and engagement of mentally impaired adults.

AAT is mutually beneficial. Given the large number of strays currently roaming the streets facing the threat of starvation, abuse and euthanasia, these fourlegged furries could be adopted for AAT. In 2006, a plea to save 45 dogs from euthanasia at the Puchong Pound prompted the Animal Medical Centre and Malaysian National Animal Welfare Foundation (MNAWF) to intervene and provide assistance. With basic obedience training, hygiene, vaccination treatments and ample care, the dogs were given a new lease on life and placed with their new families at the Ti-Ratana Orphanage, which is part of a large welfare centre comprising a children’s home, an old folks’ home and a women’s shelter in Desa Petaling.

Paw-sibilities Ahead

Despite its growing popularity, AAT in Malaysia still encounters many challenges and stigmas. Ensuring the welfare of both animals and clients while navigating legal and ethical considerations remain a primary concern. Licensing or training animals for AAT involves establishing clear protocols for animal selection, training and supervision; including temperament and obedience training, as well as potty training. Additionally, cultural attitudes towards animals may present obstacles in certain communities; for example, Malaysian Muslims who handle or interact with dogs may have to perform ritual cleansing. These challenges can be overcome through efforts to address misconceptions and foster dialogue to build trust and acceptance among communities.

Still, AAT requires a more structured and methodical framework for treatment to avoid equating it with any and all other human-animal relationships. Like all treatments, AAT is merely a tool that may facilitate change and well-being, which may or may not work depending on many factors, including reception by the patient/client. To promote AAT, stakeholders, including academia, should prioritise research and methodical documentation to generate evidence-based recommendations for AAT practices.

Investing in training programmes for both therapists and animals, expanding access to AAT services in diverse communities, and advocating for greater recognition and integration within mainstream healthcare systems are pivotal steps towards unlocking the full potential of AAT. Collaboration between government agencies, non-profit organisations and private stakeholders is essential to drive the growth and sustainability of AAT initiatives. By pooling resources and expertise, we can create a more inclusive and compassionate society where the healing power of animals is fully embraced.

References

[1] A review on animal-assisted therapy and activities for healthcare and teaching of children - https://www.jesoc.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/JESOC-176.pdf

[2] Animal Assisted Therapy in Malaysia (AAT) - https://www.mmgazette.com/animal-assisted-therapy-in-malaysia-aat-shatheswaran-rajadesinggi/

[3] As animal-aided therapy progresses in Malaysia, how man’s second best friend gives special needs kids renewed hope https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2023/12/18/as-animal-aided-therapy-progresses-in-malaysia-how-mans-second-best-friend-gives-special-needs-kids-renewed-hope/107148

[4] C-A-T PLAYGROUND - https://www.catplayground.org/

[5] Dr Dog Malaysia - https://www.hati.my/dr-dog-malaysia/

[6] How to train your guide or emotional support dog - https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/leisure/health/2022/10/19/how-to-train-your-guide-or-emotional-support-dog/

[7] Malaysian Animal-Assisted Therapy for the Disabled and Elderly Association (PETPOSITIVE) - https://www.hati.my/malaysian-animal-assisted-therapy-for-the-disabled-and-elderly-association-petpositive/

8) Malaysian National Animal Welfare Foundation (MNAWF) - https://mnawf.org.my/

9) Najaasah (impurity) of dogs and the ruling on keeping a dog - https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/leisure/health/2022/10/19/how-to-train-your-guide-or-emotional-support-dog/

[10] Still fringe in Malaysia, animal-aided therapy slowly making headway with special needs kids - https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2023/12/03/still-fringe-in-malaysia-animal-aided-therapy-slowly-making-headway-with-special-needs-kids/104937

[11] The State of Animal-Assisted Interventions: Addressing the Contemporary Issues That Will Shape the Future -https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6843928/#B4-ijerph-16-03997

[12] The Ti-Ratana Project - https://animalhospital.com.my/the-ti-ratana-project/

Nisha Kumaravel

is a licensed counselor, communications specialist and project coordinator, advocating for labour and farmer's rights, as well as agricultural and political reform. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and caring for her 13 unruly cats.


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