Animal-Assisted Therapy: Does It Work with Stuffed Animals?

Integrating live animals into the therapeutic process has been gaining recognition as a viable and effective approach in a clinical setting. Equine-assisted therapy is a widely popular form of therapy that has shown remarkable results with clients who do not respond well to other types of treatment. Similarly, children who are resistant to traditional therapies have demonstrated improvement in animal-assisted therapies. For individuals who experience disassociation, animals represent an unconditional source of love and acceptance. For people who may have experienced early life trauma, especially trauma or abuse that undermined attachment relationships, animals can replace missing secure attachment bonds.

Although animals as therapy adjuncts, even pets, can help reduce anxiety, depression, loneliness, and isolation, owning or working with an animal may not be a viable option for everyone in need. Therefore, stuffed animals, which represent a source of comfort in times of stress for young people, may serve as a suitable replacement. Rose M. Barlow of the Department of Psychology at Boise State University in Idaho wanted to see if stuffed animals would serve clients equally as well as live animals. In a recent study, Barlow surveyed a sample of high and low dissociative female college students and those with dissociative identity disorder (DID) about attachment to live and stuffed animals. She found that the DID women had significantly stronger attachments to both live and stuffed animals than any of the other women. She also found that those with high dissociation and those with DID reported higher levels of attachment to stuffed animals than live animals when compared to the low dissociative group.

The findings of this study have several important clinical implications. Even though comorbid issues such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar were not considered in this research, the evidence suggests that stuffed animals may be particularly helpful to those with high levels of dissociation. Because symptoms of dissociation, even disorganized attachment, can begin in childhood and result from emotionally unavailable parents, divorce, or abuse, integrating stuffed animals into therapy for young children can provide a sense of security and help to rebuild impaired attachment bonds. “Animals, live or stuffed, can aid therapy for both children and adults by providing a way to experience and express emotions, a feeling of unconditional support, and grounding,” Barlow said.

Barlow, Rose M., Lisa DeMarni Cromer, Hannah Prairie Caron, and Jennifer J. Freyd. Comparison of normative and diagnosed dissociation on attachment to companion animals and stuffed animals. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice & Policy 4.5 (2012): 501-06. Print.

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  • Robyn

    November 1st, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    This feels like a real reach for me, and typically I am open and willing to integrate new and creative ideas into my methodology. But stuffed animals in no way can reciprocate and replicate what a live animal can do for a patient who so needs that closeness and attachment that only a real animal has to offer. In many ways for me this seems almost too childish for a method of treatment that is only just gaining respect and I think that adding this childlike element is going to turn off both patients and practitioners who may have been somewhat willing to give this a try.

  • Carlton

    November 2nd, 2012 at 4:07 AM

    I have to disagree with Robyn ( soory!) because I think that especially for a child, many times they are looking for someone or something to hold onto, to bond with, and even a stuffed animal can offer that kind of love for them. Okay, so it’s not traditional or exactly the same that you would experience with a live animal. Big deal. For many of these kids this may be the first thing that they have ever had in their lives that gives them aid and comfort and helps them to feel at peace and loved. That’s all many of them are looking for, and if this is what makes them feel safe then I have no problems at all with this being used as a part of their therapeutic healing.

  • debbie

    November 2nd, 2012 at 11:23 PM

    notice how many children hold on to stuffed tots when in bed or otherwise when they need comfort?well that is enough to say just the sense of someone being with you is important and the fact that it is a stuffed to is only secondary.

  • DonutFTW

    November 3rd, 2012 at 4:46 AM

    I took out a big stuffed toy after reading this article. I was hoping to be comforted or at least provide some relief. I was dumped. I felt so much betrayal and guilt.

    However when I looked at the stuffed dog, all it did was remind me about him. I kept strangling the stuffed dog. It has done except made me sadder that I have lost my inner child who used to play with stuffed toy.

  • Ursula

    November 4th, 2012 at 6:25 AM

    This shouldn’t be about what we have lost but to be able to see past that at the things that we have gained. If it is something that you know will make you sad, then ebst to look for an alternative solution.

  • C@~

    December 7th, 2015 at 8:06 PM

    I’m a few years late, but I wanted to throw in my personal anecdote. I’ve been feeling rather depressed lately (not diagnosed, but seeing a counselor soon) and I’ve found that having my stuffed animal with me helps me cope when I’m feeling sad and negative about working. The findings about women with dissociation tendencies resonated with me because I find that I externalize the pep talk that I usually need to stay motivated. So I’ll ask my animal if she thinks I can do it, and of course in my head she says ‘yes’. And I hug her when I’m feeling worthless or I’ll just stroke her fur to feel a little reminder that I’m not alone. For context, I’m a mid-twenties female PhD student. Like I said, I’m getting professional help soon, but my stuffed animal has helped me hold it together until I can get that help.

  • Anon

    February 18th, 2017 at 10:42 PM

    I am also a PhD student who is working fulltime. Maybe the stress has me at the brink of madness, lol, but I recently bought a gigantic teddy bear as a replacement for the boyfriend that skipped out on me last year. Whatever works… did you finish?

  • Lynne

    December 19th, 2018 at 7:40 AM

    Another PhD student (started in Fall of 2017), here. I’ve been in a pretty vulnerable and painful position for the past year or so (less so the course/TA load and more so being trans : \); particularly in March of this year near after a traumatic event, which was when I gave up and decided to buy a big stuffed tiger (they’re my favorite animal). I’d thought about a live ESA, but dogs in general kind of give me anxiety and for any animal I was worried about my ability to give them the love and care they’d need with my hectic schedule. My tiger’s been actually great for staving off anxiety attacks/destressing, getting better sleep, and just feeling a little bit less alone which is pretty important during what can be a really lonely process. The only thing that sucks is he’s too large to take when they send me abroad.

  • Aria

    February 9th, 2016 at 3:48 PM

    I’m 26 years old and I secretly carry my little stuffed animal with me in my purse every day because it provides me great comfort and relief. I also had a dog and I loved her too (but she’s a big dog and I can’t bring her everywhere).

  • Bart

    September 4th, 2017 at 9:46 AM

    I prefer little yellow hippos while on the go.

  • J

    April 12th, 2016 at 11:20 PM

    I’m a 32yo male that recently had a traumatic accident with potentially long term consequences on my health. My family brought a stuffed animal at the hospital I stayed there for a month. I now still have it and it gives me a sense of security and cheers me up when I’m at my lowest.

  • Linda W

    June 5th, 2016 at 12:43 PM

    I am a 52 y.o. female, married with two sons. I’ve had my stuffed bear for over thirty years. He has always been a source of comfort particularly during times of stress. Cuddling him helps me to settle in to sleep at night. I’ve always had a favorite stuffed animal to sleep with since the age of two. This in no way deters me from enjoying close loving relationships with my husband and nearly grown sons.

  • Dwi

    March 4th, 2019 at 11:34 PM

    I’m a 42 year old female who’s suffering from severe depression. Am in the process of getting professional help,because it has affected me to the point of jeopardizing my employment. I’ve been bringing some small stuffed Woodstocks in my ourse with me, comforting to know they are there.

  • Torah-Laura

    July 30th, 2019 at 6:35 AM

    True confessions of a 70 year old woman. I must say that the study referred to here is personally validating. Who knew that a stuffed teddy could have such positive therapeutic impact on someone recovering from Complex Post Traumatic Issues? Please do not be too quick to pass judgment on those who may derive a soothing effect, comfort and support for those whose histories were absent of such, in what may be considered unorthodox ways. I walk in no one’s shadow with no shame just grateful for having some formerly unmet needs addressed in ways that even I was initially skeptical about. Desperation can be a surprising motivator. My darling Saspirella Sassafrass has on many occasions been an welcome antidote to a developmental background of alienation, isolation, and loneliness given the absence of human contact.

  • bob

    January 20th, 2023 at 11:03 PM

    I’m a 77-year-old man with cancer and heart failure. Luckily I’m not debilitated. I work out and ride an exercise bike an hour daily and still work managing a program for a nonprofit, and the cancer is going into remission. I live alone and have no family or a wife or girlfriend and I don’t socialize outside of work. My work and all the people and clients I come in contact with provide sufficient socialization for me.
    I got a robotic cat for a companion pet and for something I see as akin to socialization outside of work. I didn’t like the robotic cat because it didn’t feel natural, though it works well for dementia patients.
    To replace the mechanical cat, I got a stuffed cat that has a weight like a real cat and feels like one when you pet or hold it. To my surprise, I find going to sleep holding this stuffed animal enormously comforting. I like it like a real cat and appreciate that I don’t have to do any work with it; i.e. food, cleaning up after it, etc. I believe I get the same benefits from it that I would from a real pet. I never thought I’d be writing this. I’ve become a believer in stuffed animals being great for comfort, loneliness, and no doubt therapy.

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