What Is Animal Therapy?

By Samantha Dewitt

Updated August 30, 2019

Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault

Animal therapy is otherwise known as animal-assisted therapy. This type of mental health treatment us the process of receiving therapy with an animal around to help you. Different kinds of animals are used in this form of therapy.

Animal-assisted therapy is a type of mental health treatment that uses animals, such as horses, dogs, cats, pigs, and birds, to complement traditional therapy. It enhances the efficacy of conventional treatment and helps patients or clients heal through interacting with animals.

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Types Of Animals

You may be surprised at all the 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 any surprise, but animals like horses, cats, birds, and even pigs can be used in some types of therapy. All of these animals can make a massive difference in helping people with their mental health issues. It depends on the client and their particular diagnosis and needs.

Conditions that Animal-Assisted Therapy Helps

People who have autism, anxiety, PTSD, and Bipolar Disorder can benefit from animal-assisted therapy. Those who are suffering from things like depression or schizophrenia or addictions may benefit from this treatment as well. Animals can calm us. People from all different backgrounds can experience the benefits associated with incorporating animals into their regular therapy routine. Animals can provide a sense of comfort, safety, and protection for some. Some people feel that animals soothe them and help them with their emotions.

For many, animal-assisted therapy means that they have a support animal that's with them all the time. Support animals are generally animals that you can take with you daily. Dogs are the most common, but sometimes other animals are designated as support animals as well, and this can be comforting. Think about the animals that you feel most comfortable. Then decide whether or not they make a good support animal for you in different ways.

A support animal doesn't need to be one that you own or one that you take with you everywhere. It could be a specific animal that you can visit with, even for a short period. Just being around that animal can help you to recharge and help you to feel a little more prepared for whatever might be coming your way. Some people have support horses that they visit periodically or support dogs that are brought in by a professional that you only see occasionally. Each of these types of animals can still make a difference in your therapy.

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How It Helps

A support animal is meant to help you improve your level of trust and self-worth by encouraging you to bond with the animal itself. Having a support animal can help improve communication, socialization, self-regulation, and mood stabilization.

Dogs and other support animals have been known to help patients who have a range of motion and strength issues or those with balance and mobility problems. It's not just about helping to benefit the mental and emotional health of their owners. Animals can help with the physical capabilities that an individual may have as well. It makes a difference when you're looking for a way to improve yourself overall. Even things like motivation, stress, and self-esteem can be enhanced with this type of therapy.

Animal Therapy Versus Emotional Support Animals

There's a significant difference between animal-assisted therapy and emotional support animals. Animal-assisted treatment is a complement to traditional therapy. Emotional support animals are companion animals that a medical professional determines will provide a person with a mental health condition relief. Typically, Emotional support animals are dogs but can be cats or other animals. When you have an emotional support animal, your pet must be trained appropriately. Not all pets are going to have the temperament and the training to do this job. It's going to depend on just what you expect your pet to do when you're seeking an ESA.

The right pet for you may not be traditional, and it may not be the type of pet that just anyone else would choose. An emotional support animal is meant to help you feel comfortable and relaxed. Their presence should be calming during hard situations. If you select an exotic or unconventional ESA, you may not be allowed into specific public places. Stores and restaurants might turn you away because your animal doesn't look like an emotional support animal, and that's important for many locations.

If you have a pet, they can be trained to be an emotional support animal. However, you may need to have the animal go through a training course.

Who Else Animal-Assisted Therapy Helps

Those who are struggling with PTSD, ADHD, or dementia may experience benefits when using animal-assisted treatment. These different conditions cause feelings of being out of control, and animals can be comforting during these times. When animals are added to traditional therapy, it's helpful, and clients feel like they're not alone during an intense emotional moment. It's possible to help an individual feel a little better about their issues when they have an animal to comfort them. With animal-assisted therapy, you can direct the thoughts and feelings towards the animal rather than keeping them bottled up inside.

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Animal-assisted therapy has been used in various settings, from nursing homes and prisons to pediatric care and cognitive rehabilitation centers. Anyone, from the time they're a child and throughout their adulthood, can benefit from this type of therapy. Many people love having animals around and find their presence comforting. If you're interested in animal-assisted treatment, talk with your therapist about the potential of working with animals for your next therapy session and every one of them going forward.

When it comes to emotional support animals, keep in mind that the specific type of intervention depends on the level of training that an animal has received. Animals that have no training are only there for you to lean on when you need to, meaning you can focus on the animal when you feel distressed. It's essential to determine the reasons for getting an emotional support animal. Maybe you need an animal to be there during panic attacks. Perhaps you want an animal to comfort you during times of depression. Make sure you select an animal who can help your specific mental health needs.

Getting The Help You Need

BetterHelp is an excellent resource for anyone who is seeking online therapy. The therapists and counselors here want to support you on your mental health journey. If you're interested in animal-assisted therapy, you can talk to your online counselor about it and see what resources they can give you. You may be interested in finding an emotional support animal and could have a fantastic experience with one. 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.


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