What Is Animal Therapy?

By: Samantha Dewitt

Updated May 04, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

Animal therapy is also known as animal-assisted therapy. This type of mental health treatment means that you 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. It enhances the efficacy of conventional treatment and helps clients heal through interacting with animals. 

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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 can may be used as well. These animals can contribute greatly to helping people with their mental health issues. Which animal is most likely to help depends on the client’s particular diagnosis and needs.

Conditions Helped by Animal-Assisted Therapy

People who have autism, anxiety, PTSD, and Bipolar Disorder can benefit from animal-assisted therapy. Those who are suffering depression, schizophrenia, or substance use may benefit from this treatment as well. People from all different backgrounds can experience the benefits associated with incorporating animals into their therapy routine. Animals can provide a sense of comfort, safety, and protection. 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 support dogs they see only occasionally that are brought in by a professional. Each of these animals can make a big difference in therapy.

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How It Helps

Animal-assisted therapy helps improve both trust and self-esteem. Bonding with an animal can also facilitate better communication, socialization, self-regulation, and mood stabilization.

Animal-assisted therapy does not just improve mental and emotional health. It can also help with physical conditions including motion and strength issues or balance and mobility problems. 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 someone with a disability. The training is rigorous, and service animals 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 a mental health condition. A pet that you already own can be an emotional support animal. For this to occur, you will need a letter from a mental health professional 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. An emotional support animal is meant to help you feel comfortable and relaxed. 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 Animal-Assisted 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 animals 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 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.

Animal-assisted therapy has been used in settings from nursing homes and prisons to pediatric care and cognitive rehabilitation centers. People throughout the lifespan can benefit from this type of therapy. If you're interested in animal-assisted treatment, you can talk with your existing therapist about the possibility of incorporating an animal into your treatment, or find a therapist who already works with an animal.

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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 and can do things like help calm you when you are having a panic attack. It's essential to determine your reasons for getting a support animal. 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 therapy or animal visitation, 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, especially with children, 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 a preliminary review, it was noted that therapists find that bringing animals into online sessions strengthens relationships with clients and brings an added dimension to the therapy process.

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 access 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 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, and Bipolar Disorder. 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!”

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