What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Updated February 15, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

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Animal-assisted therapy is perhaps the most fun version of therapy you could ever partake in. Why? Because it involves receiving treatment that includes animals, all for the betterment of your mental health!

Who wouldn't want to feel better while also getting to spend some time with a cat or dog, or even a horse, pig or bird? Some have even engaged in dolphin-assisted therapy, though experts warn against the practice, saying it provides no long-term benefit.

If you’re interested in therapy sessions that involve therapy dogs, find a therapist who is involved with animals or has connections to help you find a therapist find the right therapy animal for you. You can find out more about the qualifications and requirements for assistance dogs at San Francisco SPCA website.

The Use of Therapy Dogs

The most common animal used for therapy within the United States is the dog. Therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from small a small puppy dog like a Yorkshire Terrier to larger dogs like German Shepherds. This makes therapy dogs quite versatile in what they can accomplish, as well as making them easy to transport if a treatment center is a bit small. Therapy dogs are also very social animals, always eager to greet people wherever they go. A group find for a therapy dog can work wonders for several people at the same time.

Therapy dogs always work well in different kinds of therapy, whether its rehabilitation from a mental illness, helping children with autism, or lifting the spirits of seniors going through chronic illnesses. This is why therapy dogs are most common and why you’ll see more of them walking around wearing their therapy animal vests. Find a therapist or a center find who can help you get the help you need in pet therapy.

Therapy Cats

Cats are a great second choice in continuing education in therapy and providing relief in different types of therapy. Cats can be more laid back and are a bit less intimidating than therapy dogs, especially for those who have had bad experiences with dogs in the past.

The trouble with cats is that they’re not as easy to transport as dogs and if they’re not socialized or trained properly, won’t do very well during therapy sessions. They seem to do best in nursing homes, where they can roam the facility and go from room to room as they please. However, there is a famous story of a cat who helped a six-year-old autistic girl learn to speak again, so cats can work well with children with autism as well. A center find for a therapy cat may be exactly what you need, or find a therapist find a cat that has been trained properly in providing therapy.

Therapy Horses

Using horses is what is known as equine therapy. It’s quite popular in different types of therapy involves different mental disorders. Therapy sessions with hoses tend to be a lot longer, since transportation is required to get to where the horses are; they’re not that easy to transport from place to place.

Most therapy sessions involving horses within the United States involve providing basic care for the horse, such as brushing it and feeding it. Such activities can promote confidence, especially when being around an animal so large. Riding a horse is also therapeutic in helping those who have anger management issues, as treating the horse with disrespect will lead to the horse ignoring you and doing its own thing.

If equine therapy seems like something you’re interested in, find a support system or find a treatment center that can help you make the right connections.

Therapy Birds

Birds can be quite pleasant to look at and listen to, but parrots are the most commonly used bird for therapy. That is because they display a high level of empathy that makes them perfect for therapy sessions. In this light, they may even be a little better than therapy dogs. Therapy birds have been especially helpful at helping veterans living with PTSD.

If therapy birds seem like they would be quite beneficial to you, consider the option to find a therapist who specializes in pet therapy with birds.

Therapy Reptiles

When you think of reptiles, your mind doesn’t automatically think “cute” or “cuddly.” But that isn’t the point of a therapy animal. The care of a reptile does require a lot of care and concentration: controlling the temperature of their habitat, making sure they’re getting the right food, and ensuring that they have enough water. And because there aren’t very many people who care for reptiles, success will lead to a surge of confidence. The care of reptiles has proven to be quite beneficial for those who are living with substance abuse, depression, and eating disorders.

You can find a treatment center in the United States if reptiles seem like the kind of challenge you’d like to take on during your pet therapy.

Therapy “Smallies”

This is a group of small animals that don’t really fit with anything else. This can include rabbits, guinea pigs, rats and mice. The convenience of being able to carry around also makes them a popular choice, so it might not hurt to find a support team that works with these kinds of animals.

Another benefit is that they’re quite easy to care for, especially for those who are not able to have a dog or a cat. Some animals, like rats, can be taught tricks, and success in these areas can help with the growth of confidence.

Benefits Of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is used for those who are struggling with conditions like:

  • Autism
  • Abuse
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Dementia
  • Substance abuse
  • Assisted living
  • PTSD

Of course, it should be noted that those who either fear or are allergic to the animals used in a particular course of treatment should refrain from partaking in that treatment. After all, it won't do much good to receive treatment involving therapy dogs that you're either afraid of, or that make you sneeze every five minutes.

So why is animal-assisted therapy even a thing? Well, because therapists can use the love that comes from the bond that forms between a human and an animal to help the human in that relationship improve their mental health. Beautiful, right? Animal interactions can help us do everything from communicating better to learn how to behave in a social situation.

Animals can often reach us in ways that other human beings cannot. They can form connections with us that can help us heal faster than connections other people try to form with us. It is for this reason that therapy dogs are often used more than any other animal. A dog's bond with a human is practically unmatched when compared to the bonds humans form with other animals. Horses, however, make for a close second.

Ways in which animal-assisted therapy has been proven to work include:

  • Decreasing patients' stress levels, heart rate, blood pressure, and aggression
  • Improving social interactions, self-esteem, patience, and trust
  • Providing patients with a feeling of empowerment
  • Decreasing feelings of hostility both toward oneself and others

Typically, the two most commonly reported results of animal assisted therapy aat include an improved mood and reduced feelings of anxiety. About feelings of hostility, AAT may be especially helpful. This is because if the patient feels he or she cannot trust anyone and is therefore openly hostile with anyone who attempts to get too close, the animal can break through this defensive wall and treat the patient in a way that no human was able to before.

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Animal-Assisted Therapy Animals Vs. Service Animals

Animals who participate in animal-assisted therapy programs, such as therapy dogs, are not the same as service animals. Animal-assisted therapy animals - or, more simply, animal assisted therapy aat animals - are specifically trained for the situations in which they will be used. They are trained to engage in animal assisted activities to improve a person’s quality of life.

Often, AAT animals liketherapy dogs live with the counselors responsible for training them, as this strengthens the bond the animal will form with the counselor, which then makes it easier for the counselor to direct them on what to do with a patient.

Animal assisted therapy aat animals are different from service animals because service animals are specifically trained to help people who live with disabilities. Further, service animals are allowed in businesses and public places to provide continuous help to the people they are servicing. This is very different from the job of an AAT animal.

Often, AAT animals will also be called companion animals, since they are not pets but are also not service animals. Companion animals and AAT animals are more for emotional support than to perform any specific function to help a person living with a disability. This can lead to some confusion as to where they are allowed and what services they perform. Companion animals are more likely involves with types of therapy that are anything but physical.

Finding A Good Animal-Assisted Therapist

If you feel you or someone you know may benefit from animal-assisted therapy, the next step is to secure a good therapist who practices in this field. Animal-assisted therapy can be practiced by any licensed therapist, social worker, or mental health care provider.

To find an animal-assisted therapist, simply look up therapists the way you normally would, and while you're conducting your interviews, inquire as to whether they participate in animal-assisted therapy.

Where Service Animals Can Work

Therapy dogs and other animals are allowed to work in specific areas, but they offer the most benefit for assisted therapy for children and in nursing homes with the elderly. In fact, according to the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and other Dementias, the presence of therapy animals have helped to improve social interactions and reduce agitated behaviors of older patients with dementia. It’s not difficult to find a therapist find an animal that can help seniors living with these issues.

Pet therapy seems to work wonders for those who are bed-ridden in hospitals as well, providing them some comfort and lifting their moods.

Therapy dogs and other animals can also work in a specific treatment center that caters to different types of therapy. For example, dogs cats can be very beneficial to children with autism, providing a sense of calm and giving the children something to focus on.

Taking Care Of The Animals

When a counselor is working with a patient in an AAT program, it is just as important for the counselor to ensure that the animal, including therapy dogs, is doing well as it is to ensure that the patient is doing well. This is to say that the counselor must make sure that the animal is not overly stimulated. The last thing you want in a counseling session is for an overstimulated animal to become aggressive to the very person he's trying to help.

AAT animals must be given the same kinds of breaks as any other animal. This means they must be allowed water and bathroom breaks, and they must be allowed to have alone time to recharge their batteries. Find a therapist find the animal that might be right for you and your therapeutic needs.

Controversy Over Dolphin Therapy

Of all of the animal-assisted therapy programs, the one that takes the most flack is that which involves dolphins. Those who advocate for dolphin therapy say that such therapy provides unbelievable results and significant breakthroughs for those with autism, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome. Specifically, advocates say that dolphin therapy has improved patients' motor functions, speech, and attention spans.

However, critics of the practice say that it does not provide patients with any true long-term benefit. Experts have warned that dolphin therapy posits a risk both to the humans and the dolphins engaging in the therapy. Not only is it a waste of thousands of dollars of the patient's money, but there is also the risk of injury or infection for both the patient and the dolphin. It would be better to just stick with therapy dogs.

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AAT Through The Ages

AAT can help anyone, regardless of age. Young children have noticed improvements in their social interactions after spending some time with horses and other animals. This is because some children find it difficult to express themselves to others or form a close bond with another person. The animal often makes a perfect substitute and helps to fill the void.

AAT has also been proven to be beneficial for the elderly, specifically those folks who used to have animals when they were younger but have since become unable to care for an animal in their older age. Animal-assisted therapy is perfect because the patient does not need to take on the responsibility of caring for the animal, yet he or she can enjoy time with the animal as if the animal was his or her very own pet.

Patients of all ages have reported seeing improvements in everything from their assertiveness to their confidence and sense of responsibility. Children, in particular, have shown marked improvements in such areas as patience, empathy, and respect, as well as communication skills both verbal and non-verbal.

Of course, when it comes to deciding the kind of treatment that would be most appropriate, it is important to consider the patient's age. For example, due to the weight and size of a horse, it may not be prudent to practice equine therapy with a very young child or an elderly patient. And, of course, the therapist should always confer with the patient beforehand to determine if the patient has any allergies or fears to any animals in particular so that certain forms of AAT can be ruled out.

Where To Find a Therapist

If pet therapy seems like something you’re really interested in to heighten the quality of your therapy, then it’s not hard to find a therapist. You just have to know where to look. Find a treatment center and ask some questions about whether they provide pet therapy of any kind. Can the center find what you’re looking for is all dependent on what kind of facility it is.

Alternatively, you could find a support group that works in pet therapy and see if it is suitable to your needs. A group find like this can be quite beneficial to helping you overcome the struggles of your mental disorder. As popular and rewarding as pet therapy may seem, to find a therapist who qualifies to work in this area may not be that easy.

Signing an Animal Up For AAT

If you have a pet and you would be interested in enrolling the pet in AAT, some strict guidelines must be met - much the same as you might encounter when attempting to breed or show a pet. These guidelines are mostly the same throughout the country, especially in San Francisco. Steps have to be taken before an animal can start working at a treatment center. Things the owner is responsible for include:

  • Obedience training
  • Completing an application and submitting the required veterinarian screening
  • Completing a skills class and passing the associated test

Once these things are complete, the next step is that all AAT animals are to be temperament tested. What this means is that they must be evaluated about how they would react when placed in a stressful situation. Many situations AAT animals encounter can be incredibly stressful, and so it is imperative to determine beforehand whether your pet would exhibit an aggressive or otherwise negative reaction to being put into such a situation, especially in a group find.

Source: pixabay.com

Following a temperament test, the animal's health would then be evaluated by a veterinarian who is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association to ensure the animal is in peak physical condition before being assigned to his or her post as a therapy animal. Any health problems are ruled out early on to determine if they are fit for the job.

Things to check would include the animal's teeth and gums, coat and skin, as well as whether the animal suffers from any sort of health condition that could potentially impact his or her performance as a therapy animal. Further, the pet's owner must be able to provide proof that the pet is up to date on all of his or her vaccinations. Find a therapist to help you figure out all the vaccinations that they will need.

Any therapy animal being considered for AAT must be certified by an accredited organization that provides both the animal and the owner with continuous education, as well as liability insurance to cover the animal and the owner while the animal participates in volunteer activities.

Once all of these things have been completed, the animal must complete an apprenticeship period, which lasts between one and three months. After the animal's apprenticeship is complete, he or she can then begin participating in AAT or visitation programs. The San Francisco SPCA has more information on what a therapy training program is like.

Would you or someone you know benefit from animal-assisted therapy, but you're not sure how to get started? Reach out to our BetterHelp counselors for more information or find a therapist who works in the pet therapy field. You can also find more info from your local health care provider to see what animal-assisted therapy is available in your area.

What does an animal-assisted therapist do?: An animal-assisted therapist is a counselor who, through the use of a therapy animal, can help people feel more comfortable during sessions or in situations that they would otherwise find stressful. They either own their own therapy animal or they work with a counseling center that has therapy animals that they are familiar with.

What conditions disorders does animal-assisted therapy treat?: Pet therapy has mostly been used in the treatment of health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, children with autism, and seniors with dementia. However, therapy animals have also been used to help people recover from cancer treatments, heart disease, and people living in long-term care facilities.

How effective is animal-assisted therapy?: According to UCLA Health, researchers found that participants living with anxiety had anxiety scores that were 24% lower after they had visits from a dogs involved with animal-assisted therapy.

When was animal-assisted therapy first used?: Although it wasn’t considered therapy at the time, Dr. Boris Levinson discovered that having his dog in the room while he was treating young clients with mental illnesses had a positive effect on their results. After that moment, he started including his dog in more and more of his sessions. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Delta Society, a group primarily focused on animal education, invented the certification program to ensure that animals involved with therapy met certain standards.

What are the highest paying jobs working with animals?: One of the highest paying jobs that involves working with animals is an animal caretaker, such as in zoos, clinics, or animal shelters.  The animals have to be provided with the right food, water, and care. It is one of the higher paying jobs that doesn’t require formal education; a GED or high school diploma is recommended.

Can any animal be a therapy animal?: In the modern world, there are a wide variety of animals that can be used in the emotional therapy process. However, not every animal is suited for therapy work, such as wild or exotic animals. Although they may be able to provide some comfort to their owners, it can be difficult to determine an animal’s predictability and how they react to stressful situations.

Who uses animal-assisted therapy?: Animal-assisted therapy is used in a wide range of mental health treatment options. It can be used to ease a person’s anxiety, help someone recover from PTSD, and to provide emotional support to people staying in nursing homes and medical facilities.

How do I become a pet psychiatrist?: Becoming a therapist involved with pet therapy does have some formal educational requirements. A bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychotherapy is required, and certification in any of the programs providing animal-assisted therapy will be enough to become a pet psychiatrist.

When was the first therapy dog?: The first therapy dog was in the 1960s, when Dr. Boris Levinson discovered that having his dog in the room while he was treating young clients with mental illnesses had a positive effect on their results.

How do I become an animal-assisted therapist UK?: The United Kingdom has different standards for therapy animals There are no National Occupational Standards that therapy animals have to meet. This is because there is no specific occupation of an animal-assisted therapist.

There are, however, specific courses and foundation degrees that focus on providing animal-assisted therapy to clients, so achieving qualifications through any of these courses is enough.

How do you train a dog for animal-assisted therapy?: Training a therapy dog or animal has to start from an early age. As a puppy, they have to be socialized to be accustomed to new people, places, and objects. Once they’re old enough, it would be a good idea to teach them the necessary behaviors for therapy work, such as “leave it” and “watch me.” Some dog breeds work well at taking commands, while others can be a bit more stubborn. Don’t be disheartened if your dog has some difficulties with certain commands. With a lot of practice and positive reinforcement, they’ll learn to get it eventually.

What is the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog?: A service dog provides physical assistance to someone living with disabilities, while a therapy dog provides emotional support. A service dog is required to be trained to perform specific tasks; a therapy dog does not require specific training, as long as they are not disruptive in the facilities they are working in.

How can I certify my dog as a therapy dog online?: The only legitimate way to certify your dog as a therapy dog or emotional support animal is to obtain a recommendation letter from a licensed therapist or mental health professional. You can contact on through BetterHelp’s online platform to help you get the recommendation letter that you need.

What breed of dog is best for depression?: The most common breed of dog used for emotional support in depression is the labrador retriever. This is because the breed is extremely gentle, are easy to train with food, and are excellent around children.


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