What Is Animal Therapy?

Updated October 7, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Animal therapy is also known as pet therapy or animal assisted therapy. This type of mental health treatment means that patients receive therapy with an animal to provide comfort and support. Animal assisted therapy uses animals such as horses, dogs, cats, pigs, and birds to complement traditional therapy. Animals may increase the efficacy of conventional treatment methods and can help clients heal through interacting with animals. 

How Do You Know When It's Time To Get A Support Animal?

Types Of Animals

You may be surprised at different types of creatures that help people with their mental health. As mentioned above, there are many types of animals that are used in animal assisted therapy. Dogs may not come as a surprise, but animals like horses, cats, birds, and even pigs may be used, as well. These animals can contribute greatly to helping people with their mental health issues and may even offer health benefits, assisting with physical health conditions and maladies. Which animal is most likely to help depends on the patient’s particular diagnosis and needs.

Conditions Helped by Animal Assisted Therapy

People who have autism, anxiety, PTSD, Bipolar Disorder, and other mental health conditions may benefit from animal assisted therapy. Patients who are experiencing symptoms of depression, schizophrenia, or substance use may benefit from animal therapy, as well. People from all different backgrounds can experience the benefits associated with incorporating animals into their therapy sessions. Therapy animals can provide a sense of comfort, safety, and. Some people find that animals soothe them and help them manage their emotions.

Animal assisted therapy doesn’t have to happen weekly as part of a therapy session. It can also be with an animal that you visit with regularly, even for a short period. This is called animal visitation. Just being around an animal can help you recharge and feel more prepared for whatever comes your way. Some people have support horses that they visit periodically or therapy dogs they see only occasionally that are brought in by a professional. Each of these animals may be able to make a big difference in therapy.

Animal assisted interventions may help improve both trust and self-esteem in patients with both mental and neurodevelopmental disorders. Bonding with an animal can also facilitate better communication, socialization, self-regulation, and mood stabilization, all of which may be helpful for mitigating symptoms of mental and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Animal assisted therapy does not just improve mental and emotional health. Patients find that it also helps with physical conditions including motion and strength issues or balance and mobility problems. Studies have shown that spending time with animals can also help with chronic diseases and improve health status, and can even reduce a patients blood pressure. Even motivation, coping, and self-esteem can be enhanced with this type of therapy.

Animal-Assisted Therapy Versus Service Animals Versus Emotional Support Animals

There are a few distinct ways that animals can be used therapeutically. Animal assisted therapy, which is a complement to traditional therapy, means that animals are used as a part of regular therapy sessions. The goals of these sessions may be physical, mental, emotional and/or social.

A service animal is a dog that is trained to help patients with a disability. The training is rigorous, and therapy dogs may be quite expensive. Service animals require certification, and they may enter almost any public space with their owner.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are companion animals that a medical professional determines will provide relief to a person with anxiety or another mental health condition. Dogs or other pets that you already own can be emotional support animals. For this to occur, you will need a letter from a mental health professional with authoritative experiences stating that your pet helps you with some element of a mental health condition. The right emotional support animal may not be traditional, and it may not be the type of pet others would choose. While many people choose dogs, others can find support from a bird or other unique animal. An emotional support animal is meant to help you feel comfortable and decrease anxiety. Their presence should be calming in challenging situations. If you select an exotic or unconventional ESA, they may not be allowed into public places such as stores and restaurants.

Who Else Is Helped by Pet Therapy and Where?

Those who are struggling with PTSD, ADHD, or dementia may experience benefits when using animal-assisted treatment. These conditions cause feelings of being out of control and frightened, and animal therapy can be comforting during these times. When animals are added to traditional therapy, clients may feel less alone when experiencing intense emotions. Therefore, individuals may feel better about their challenges when they have a therapy dog or other animal to comfort them. With pet therapy, you can direct the thoughts and feelings towards the animal rather than keeping them bottled up inside.

Healthcare providers have used animal assisted therapy in settings from nursing homes and prisons to pediatric care, cognitive rehabilitation centers, and other facilities. People throughout the lifespan, from young children to older adults, can benefit from this type of therapy. If you're interested in animal assisted treatment, you can talk with your existing therapist or health care provider about the possibility of incorporating an animal into your treatment, or find wellness professionals who utilize pet therapy programs.

How Do You Know When It's Time To Get A Support Animal?

When it comes to choosing an emotional support animal vs. a service animal, keep in mind that how much the animal can help when you are in distress depends on the level of training it has received. Untrained emotional support animals are mostly there to provide comfort and reassurance when you need it, meaning you can focus on the animal

when you feel distressed. A service animal is highly trained, with obedience training and other relevant experience, and can do things like help calm you when you are having a panic attack. It's essential to determine your reasons for wanting pet therapy. Make sure you select an animal who can help with your specific mental health needs.

Getting The Help You Need

BetterHelp is an excellent resource for anyone who is seeking online therapy. The therapists at BetterHelp can support you on your mental health journey. If you're interested in animal assisted activities or animal therapy, you can talk to your online counselor and see what resources they can offer. Or you may be interested in finding an emotional support animal or a service animal. Don't be afraid to reach out for help if you need support. Therapy is an excellent place to talk about your feelings, and BetterHelp cares about your needs.

Online Animal Assisted Therapy

As telehealth has become increasingly ubiquitous, the use of animals in online therapy sessions has been reviewed. There are a couple of ways online animal assisted therapy can occur. First, therapists can bring their trained support animals (usually cats or dogs) into online sessions with clients. Secondly, clients can be encouraged to include their own pets in online sessions. In the preliminary review conducted at the University of Saskatchewan, it was noted that participants of an online therapy dog program increased a sense of connectedness and well-being, and positively impacted mental health.

The Benefits of Online Therapy

As discussed above, animal assisted therapy sessions can provide comfort and support to clients. But when you are struggling with symptoms such as anxiety and fear, it can be challenging to leave home. This is where online therapy comes in. You can BetterHelp’s platform from the comfort and privacy of your own home. In addition, online therapy offers lower pricing than in-person therapy because online therapists and wellness professionals don’t have to pay for costs like renting an office. BetterHelp’s licensed therapists have helped people with issues including autism, ADHD, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and other mental health disorders. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“Aimee is an amazing listener who is able to provide great feedback from a well educated background. Aimee has a great way of helping her clients come to an understanding of where their emotions are stemming from, and how to manage them in a healthy and proper fashion. Thank you Aimee!”

“Ms. Norwood was an incredibly empathetic and compassionate counselor and she helped me a great deal. She is very spiritual, wise, and understands a great deal about the human mind and is very good at guiding her clients to understanding themselves better. I’m very happy I got to work with her!”

What is the most common animal used for therapy?

Dogs are the most common animal used for therapy, with horses coming in second. Dog assisted therapy is common because studies have shown dogs can help people with mental and physical aliments, improving anxiety, cardiovascular health and heart failure, and even people in critical care. Peer reviewed studies also indicate therapy dogs and other animals can help with physical therapy, improving motor skills in children. If you’re interested in turning a pet you already have into a therapy or service animal, be sure your pet is comfortable with social interaction and being out in public, since that’s a huge part of the job.

Popular articles online, like this one from Healthline Media, can give you more information about pet therapy and other complementary therapies.

Is animal therapy effective?

Animal therapy can be an invaluable service and a staple of integrative medicine. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the human-animal bond can have a significant impact on human health and wellbeing. Studies show animal therapy can improve a plethora of issues, from improving physical conditions like heart failure to comforting patients hospitalized in long term care facilities. If you’re considering animal therapy, it may be useful to take an instructional course to figure out how to be a therapy animal’s handler,

What is an animal therapist called?

An animal therapist can be referred to as an animal-assisted therapist. These therapists are highly trained to securely process and work with animals to comfort and heal their patients. Learn more about animal assisted therapists on Healthline Media websites.

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