What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated May 8, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Animal-assisted therapy, also known as animal therapy or pet therapy involves pets and animals in the treatment of mental health conditions, stress, and distressing symptoms. Registered therapy dogs or a therapist's pet may often be called in to support clients while they discuss their goals with their therapist. Studies show that dogs have been used to treat mental health symptoms since the 18th century and may prove highly effective. 

Unlike a service dog or emotional support animal, therapy animals can be any animal that provides comfort to others in a therapeutic environment like a nursing home, therapy session, or hospital setting. Animal-assisted therapy involves a connection with these animals and the power of empathy.

Animal assisted therapies are not limited to just dogs and cats; animal-assisted psychotherapy sessions could include a variety of different types of animals. Pet Partners registers nine different species of animals as service animals.

Many people may feel enticed by the idea of receiving therapy while spending time with a cat, dog, horse, pig, or bird. Some have engaged in dolphin-assisted therapy, though it might not provide benefits. Regardless, many people feel they can connect more with animals than with people. 

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Aat is an effective type of therapy

What are therapy dogs? 

The most common animals used for therapy within the United States are therapy dogs. Therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from small dogs like Yorkshire terriers to larger dogs like German shepherds. The American Kennel Club (AKC) provides training and certification for dogs to become therapy animals to provide care in hospitals, nursing homes, and therapy environments. A few other organizations may also offer this training, including PetSmart.

Therapy dogs learn obedience skills in training and are tested for temperament and behavior around certain stimuli like loud noises, children, and sensitive individuals. If they pass the testing, they may be certified to offer emotional support and comfort in various environments with prior permission. A group therapy dog can work for several people at the same time. If you cannot adopt your own dog, setting up a dog-assisted therapy session may be beneficial.

Therapy dogs may belong to your therapist or work with a program that brings them temporarily to certain therapy groups or centers. You may find one near you by searching through your preferred search engine. 

Important disclaimer

Therapy dogs are not service animals or emotional support animals (ESAs) by default. They may also fit the requirements of one of the other two. However, they may only do one job at a time. Additionally, therapy dogs are not outlined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Fair Housing Act (FHA). They do not have public rights, meaning they cannot go into any public non-pet-friendly area without prior approval. Therefore, therapy dogs may often gain approval from a therapist, hospital, or nursing home before entering. These dogs may wear vests or IDs, identifying them as therapy dogs. 

Cats

Cats are another choice for providing relief in therapy. Cats can be more laid back and potentially less intimidating than dogs for those who may have had negative experiences with dogs or larger animals in the past.

However, some cats may become fearful or upset if taken from home and may be more challenging to transport than a dog. Cats with a calm, friendly temperament may do best as therapy cats. These animals may fare best in nursing homes, long-term treatment facilities, or therapy buildings where they can roam around and stay in the building overnight with their food and bed. 

Horses

The use of horses in therapy is known as equine therapy. It has been proven effective in treating mental health symptoms and conditions. Therapy sessions with horses may last an hour or more, as saddling and gearing up a horse may take a while. However, equine therapy may not only involve riding. 

Many therapy sessions involving horses within the United States involve providing primary care for the horse, such as brushing and feeding it. Such activities can promote confidence and empathy. As clients connect with a horse, they may feel a bond, which may help with loneliness or sadness. 

Birds

Many birds can be pleasant to look at and listen to, but parrots are the most commonly used for therapy. Parrots display a high level of empathy, making them well-suited for therapy sessions. Therapy birds have been especially useful in treating veterans living with PTSD.

Reptiles

By nature, when you think of reptiles, you might not think of a therapeutic or cuddly creature. However, therapy animals can provide many benefits outside of cuddling or softness. The care of a reptile can require patience and empathy. For example, a client might help a therapist control the temperature of their habitat and ensure they are fed and have water. A reptile can also be held in some circumstances. Learning about reptiles in child or adolescent therapy can help children come out of their shells and talk in a session. 

Small animals 

Therapists may also use small therapy animals like rodents to support their clients. These animals may include rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, and mice. The convenience of carrying them around makes these animals a popular choice for therapy. Some animals, like rats, can be taught tricks, and success in these areas can help with confidence-building. Additionally, those who struggle to focus during therapy may benefit from focusing on an animal while they talk. 

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Potential benefits of this therapy

Traditional therapy and mental health care, such as talk therapy are not equally effective for all people or conditions. Research suggests that introducing other complementary therapies such as animal therapy can aid in the treatment of a variety of mental health conditions. An animal-assisted intervention could provide companionship and build self-esteem beyond what traditional therapies can offer.
A 2019 systematic review of all available literature on animal therapy found that there was extensive evidence to support the benefits of therapy dogs as a therapeutic approach to treating both mental and physical health conditions.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is often recommended in the treatment of the following conditions: 

  • Autism
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • Phobias 
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Dementia
  • Old age 
  • Migrain

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

There is some physical evidence from randomized controlled trials that supports the benefits of therapy dogs as a viable therapeutic intervention in clinical practice. A research article published in Current Pain and Headache Reports suggests that in addition to providing social support, therapy dogs could reduce pain levels for patients by releasing endorphins in the brain.

An AAT program can be effective because it uses the human-animal bond to help the human in that relationship improve their mental health. Animal interactions can help humans communicate, socialize, and learn empathetic skills. Animals can often reach individuals in ways that other humans might not. They can form connections with people that may heal them from past adverse experiences. Connecting with a living being that does not judge or hurt you can help you learn to trust after a scary social connection or relationship. The physical touch from petting or holding an animal can release feel-good endorphins in the brain and help to curb loneliness.

Those who fear or are allergic to the different animals used in a particular course of treatment may choose to refrain from engaging in that treatment. You may find that attending a session with an animal you are afraid of or allergic to takes away from the therapeutic benefit.

Animal-assisted therapy may benefit individuals in various ways, including the following: 

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

The two most commonly reported results of animal-assisted therapy include an improved mood and reduced feelings of anxiety. Regarding feelings of hostility, AAT may be beneficial. For example, if patients feel they cannot trust anyone, they may feel more trusting of an animal and more open to healthy emotional expression during sessions.

What is a service animal? 

Animals participating in animal-assisted therapy programs are not the same as service animals. Animal-assisted therapy animals are specifically trained for the situations in which they will be used. They are trained to engage in animal-assisted activities to promote healing and improve a person's mental and emotional health.

Service animals, on the other hand, are specifically trained in one or more tasks to aid in the disability of one individual whom they accompany in public or at home. They may provide safety, reminders, alerts, or retrieval. Service animals may also provide assistance for individuals who have limited physical activity. Service animals are allowed in businesses and public places to provide continuous help to the people they serve. 

Service dogs must complete obedience training and learn socialization skills to be able to most effectively assist people with medical conditions.

Often, AAT animals are referred to as companion animals since they are not pets or service animals. Companion animals and AAT animals are more for emotional support than to perform any specific function to help a person with a disability. For this reason, they are not permitted in non-pet-friendly locations without permission. 

Do therapy dogs work? Therapy dogs and other animals may be permitted in various areas including schools, hospital settings, at-home visits, and other facilities. However, they commonly treat symptoms in children and older adults. According to the American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias, the presence of therapy animals has helped to improve social interactions and reduce agitated behaviors of older patients with dementia. 

Pet therapy may be advantageous for those bedridden in hospitals, providing comfort and lifting moods. Therapy dogs and other animals can also work in a specific treatment center that caters to different types of therapy. For example, dogs and cats can benefit autistic children and adults who are non-verbal, as they can communicate with the pets through gentle touches and non-verbal cues. 

Animal-assisted support (AAT) for all ages, genders, and backgrounds

Animal-assisted therapy may be utilized for any individual of any age, gender, or background. Animal therapies can be beneficial therapeutic activities for children and the elderly in particular. Young children may learn social interactions after spending time with horses and other animals. Some children may have difficulty expressing themselves or forming a close bond with another person, so an animal can allow them to express themselves freely. Therapy animals might benefit children with behavioral problems by teaching them socialization skills.

AAT has also been proven beneficial for the elderly. They might benefit those who cannot care for or adopt another animal later in life but love animals and their company. In these situations, animal-assisted therapy may be ideal because the patient may not need to take on the responsibility of caring for the animal but can enjoy the benefits of cuddling with them. A systematic review and meta-analysis study on animal-assisted therapy for older adults concluded that animal therapy could have physiological, psychosocial, cognitive, and behavioral benefits for the elderly.

Adults may also benefit from animal-assisted therapy in various environments. For example, many therapists may bring their own pet to therapy for clients to hold or pet while they talk to their therapist. Some therapists may have a therapy cat or another animal for clients to play with or talk to.

Getty/Halfpoint Images
Aat is an effective type of therapy

Exploring online support options

Some mental health conditions may cause challenges for a person to leave their house to partake in activities, including attending therapy appointments. In cases of severe depression or anxiety, a client might consider online therapy. Online therapy can be utilized on any device with an internet connection from any location, including your own home. You can also choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people using animal-assisted therapy interventions with a counselor or group moved to online settings. This move presented an opportunity to study the potential effectiveness of internet-based animal-assisted therapy. Though more studies are needed, preliminary research supports the use of animals in an online therapy session. In these sessions, a therapy animal may accompany a therapist, and a client can react to the animal and participate through the screen. Clients might also bring their pets to therapy to cuddle with while they talk to their therapist from home. 

If you determine that you might benefit from online animal-assisted therapy or another form of treatment, consider reaching out through a platform like BetterHelp, which offers over 30,000 trained and licensed professionals specializing in various fields of psychology and forms of treatment. While BetterHelp may not offer animal-assisted therapy, it can be an appropriate start to learn more about online therapy in general.

Takeaway

Animal-assisted therapy can benefit people of all ages who believe they may feel more comfortable in therapy when an animal is present. Connecting with another life and giving them affection and care while you discuss challenging subjects can be valuable for many. If you are interested in learning more about this type of therapy or any others, consider reaching out to a counselor for further information and guidance.
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