The Healing Potential Of Animal Therapy

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated June 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Animal therapy, also known as pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy, is a type of mental health treatment that allows clients to receive therapeutic support and comfort from an animal. This type of therapy uses animals like horses, dogs, cats, pigs, and birds to complement traditional therapy. Animals may increase the effectiveness of conventional treatment methods, provide comfort, and help clients feel less isolated in their experiences.

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Types of animals used in animal therapy

Dogs are among the most common animal species used in animal therapy, but there are also various animals used. Do therapy dogs work? Research indicates that the presence of therapy dogs can reduce anxiety and stress. Although many people know about therapy dogs, several types of animals are used in animal-assisted therapy. Animals like horses, cats, birds, and pigs may help clients connect with another living being and feel supported during their therapeutic process. 

Therapeutic horseback riding is another popular form of animal therapy. Not only is it fun to go therapeutic horseback riding, but it can also have positive effects on mental health. Children and adults can improve communication and social skills through human-animal interactions with animals like horses.

These animals can contribute to treating mental illness and may offer health benefits like reducing chronic pain symptoms.

The type of animal therapy an individual chooses could depend on a few factors, including the following: 
  • The availability of animal-assisted therapy in their city
  • The type of animal they hope to connect with 
  • Whether they want to care for the animal or sit with it during sessions
  • The cost of each type of therapy 
  • The session length 
  • Whether the type of animal therapy includes talk therapy or not 
  • The location where the therapy will take place

Who can benefit from animal therapy?

Anyone can benefit from animal-assisted therapy, and you do not have to have a mental health diagnosis or living with a psychological disability to do so. However, those experiencing mental illness may also find benefits, including those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, or a type of neurodiversity, like autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

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The following groups of people can potentially benefit from animal therapy:

  • Military veterans 
  • Elderly 
  • Children 
  • People with mental health conditions or disorders

Anyone of any age, gender, or background may experience the benefits of incorporating animals into their therapy sessions. Therapy animals can provide clients with a sense of comfort, safety, and love. Some people find that animals soothe them and help them manage their emotions. Others might feel that caring for an animal helps them feel in control of their actions and find the motivation to wake up and leave home. 

The role of a therapy animal

Research findings suggest that therapeutic intervention that incorporates dogs in clinical practice can promote collaboration between client and therapist, as the animal may "act as a co-therapist" whose role strengthens the therapeutic bond. The positive effects of the therapeutic alliance, such as trust in the dog and the therapist, may also carry over into other relationships and interactions. 

Among its myriad reported benefits, AAT for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may improve fine motor skills. It can also promote socialization skills by fostering behaviors such as sharing and cooperation.

Other animals, such as cats, guinea pigs, and dolphins, have been linked with improving ASD symptoms in children. A therapy horse, for example, may benefit clients socially and emotionally. Research has shown that equine-assisted therapy can boost mood, boost self-confidence, and bring a sense of accomplishment in steering the horse. 

Service animals 

Assistance animal and service animal, terms that are often used interchangeably, refer to animals working in roles related to disability assistance. Service animals are typically dogs, and they're allowed in most places—such as schools, restaurants, hotels, and emergency shelters—even when animals wouldn't normally be permitted to enter. However, there may be limitations to allowing a service dog, such as in the case of a business that states that the presence of a service animal would alter its activities or services, or a dog hasn't been housetrained.  

Therapy animals

Pet Partners is a non-profit organization that offers volunteering opportunities for people with animals to provide animal-assisted therapy to hospitals, schools, and other settings. Would-be volunteers who wish to share their animals for the benefit of their communities can get the requisite training to qualify for the program. 

Animal-assisted therapy

Many studies suggest that animals can provide myriad psychological benefits to individuals. Animal owners have also been noted for acquiring physical benefits, such as having lower blood pressure and more physical activity.

One meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials evaluated the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapies for people with cognitive impairment. Its findings indicate that, when compared to control groups, those who underwent animal-assisted therapies showed fewer behavioral problems. Patients also exhibited fewer symptoms of dementia, most notably agitation and depression. 

A study examined dog-assisted therapy in a public nursing home, where participants spent 50 minutes per week with a dog for a period of nine months. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers noted that AAT contributed to improving the participants' quality of life. In another study, nursing home residents were also found to engage more with each other when a dog was present. 

A review in Current Pain and Headache Reports indicates the pain-relief benefits of AAT, including pain relief and an increase in endorphins following a visit from service dogs. 

Examples of animal therapy

Animal-assisted therapy or rehabilitation can also be flexible and doesn't necessarily have to happen weekly as part of a therapy session. For example, some clients might visit an animal once a month for a short period, referred to as animal visitation. Seeing an animal as part of your treatment plan may help you recharge and feel prepared for your regular therapy sessions or daily life. 

A few examples of animal visitation or types of therapeutic activities with animals can include the following:

  • Support horses that individuals visit periodically to brush, groom, and ride 
  • Farms where clients can go for a day to help with farm chores and play with animals 
  • Therapy dogs that are brought to a client's home, hospital, or therapy session to offer emotional support 
  • Birds, rodents, reptiles, or other small animals are brought into a support group to educate clients on animal care and allow them to connect with an animal 
  • Therapy cats that live in an inpatient mental health facility or in long-term care facilities and offer support to all residents
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Benefits of animal-assisted therapy

The use of animals to assist people and for social support is a practice that dates back thousands of years.Modern research studies have found evidence that human-animal interactions can have benefits for physical and mental health. Animal-assisted interventions may improve trust and self-esteem in clients experiencing mental health concerns. Bonding with an animal can facilitate communication, socialization, self-control, and mood stabilization, all of which may benefit a wide variety of clients. 

However, animal-assisted therapy does not only improve mental and emotional health. Stress reduction from human-animal social interactions can even have benefits for physical health. Research suggests that animal therapy could reduce pain levels for people with various health conditions. 

Clients may animal therapy help with physical conditions, including motion and strength issues or balance and mobility problems. Studies have shown that spending time with animals can aid in chronic disease and reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels caused by stress. Motivation, emotional control, and self-esteem may also be enhanced. Therapy animals support people during times of stress such as after an accident or natural disaster. 

For this reason, many inpatient centers, hospitals, hospice centers, nursing homes, and other facilities offer animal-assisted therapy to their residents. Some centers may have their own resident therapy animal that provides care to those who pass through. 

Animal therapy, service animals, and ESAs

There are a few distinct ways that animals can be used therapeutically, and it can be beneficial to know the differences in legal status between them, including the following.

Animal-assisted therapy

Animal-assisted therapy, complementing traditional therapy, involves using animals as part of regular therapy sessions or temporary therapeutic visits, like an animal visitation. The goals of these sessions may be physical, mental, emotional, or social. Often, the animals are trained therapy animals approved to enter buildings to provide support. However, they work for many clients and are not specific to one handler, like a service animal. 

Service animals

A service animal is a dog or mini horse trained to aid a handler with a disability by providing one or more direct tasks, not including emotional support. The training for service dogs involves advanced obedience, public entry, and task training. Service animals may enter any public space with their owner under the ADA, are safe under housing laws through the FHA, and can enter aircraft. Service dogs must undergo strict obedience training and health screening to ensure that they can safely assist the needs of their owner.

Service animals can be psychiatric or provide physical support. They can also be owner-trained, trained by a behaviorist, or purchased from a program. Service dogs do not require registration, identification, or specific unique licensing in the US. They may have a program card if purchased from a program, but no official documentation is required for a service dog to enter a business. 

ESAs

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are animals designated by a medical professional to provide emotional relief to a person experiencing a mental health challenge. Dogs or other animals that you own can be emotional support animals. To live with an emotional support animal in non-animal-friendly housing, you will need a note from a therapist or doctor, not purchased from a website. 

ESAs are not controlled and are not required to be trained, so they cannot accompany an individual in public places. They are not covered under the ADA, which is the law in the US that discusses public entry for those with disabilities. In addition, ESAs are not task-trained, like service animals and emotional support does not qualify as a task. Emotional support animals can be any animal and offer support to one person. Their presence is to reduce symptoms of a mental health condition or offer emotional support. 

Treatment for dementia 

Those living with dementia may experience benefits when using animal-assisted treatment. Dementia can cause feelings of fear and loss of control for patients, and animal therapy can be comforting during these times. When animals are added to traditional therapy, clients may feel less alone in their experiences. 

Many older adults with dementia may desire to care for an animal or adopt an animal. However, due to their condition, they may not be able to care for one safely. An animal can visit the individual in these cases to provide support, play, and enjoyment. The individual may feel that they are caring for the animal and that it is their responsibility while it is still under its handler's supervision. 

Healthcare providers have used animal-assisted therapy in settings from nursing homes to hospices. Some centers may care for a therapy animal that can live in the center and wander from room to room to support residents as they live in a new environment. In addition, animal therapy can provide emotional support to those experiencing a terminal diagnosis.  

Treatment for ADHD

Around 5% of children in America are diagnosed with ADHD. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be treated with a range of interventions, including medications, talk therapy, and complementary therapies like animal therapy or art therapy. 

A systematic review of dog-assisted therapy for children with ADHD, autism, and other mental health conditions found that animal-assisted therapies could be a promising treatment approach. Children with ADHD may be able to improve social interaction with the new skills they learn during animal therapy. 

Some adults with ADHD have trained service dogs to help offset the effects of their symptoms. Service dogs for ADHD can help their owners stay on track with important tasks, take medications on time, and do other tasks to help improve the quality of life for their owners. 

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How do you know when it's time to get a support animal?

How to get a therapy animal at home 

Deciding whether to get a service animal or ESA can depend on several factors, including your budget, mental health needs, and current US laws. ESAs can provide emotional support at home and are no different from an animal, except that they can live in non-animal-friendly housing. 

However, if you determine that you have a disability that could benefit from specific tasks and 24/7 guidance from a dog, you might benefit from a service animal. Many programs offer psychiatric service dogs for conditions like PTSD or anxiety. These dogs can provide tasks like deep pressure therapy (DPT), dissociation alerts, medication retrieval, and waking their handler from a nightmare, among many others.

If you choose a service dog, meet with a service dog trainer to discuss your options. Some owners choose to train their own service dogs. However, note that owner-trained dogs are still required to follow public entry laws, including obedience, leash laws, and task training. Training your own animal to be a service animal may be difficult. If you receive a dog from a program, it may be trained for you over time and delivered to you at around one year after supervised visits and instruction from the program. 

Potential risks 

Animal therapy is designed to be as safe as possible and animal therapists are trained on how to minimize risks to keep both the animal and patient safe during sessions. However, an animal-assisted intervention (also called animal therapy or pet therapy) may not be the best course of treatment for everyone. People with allergies or who are immunocompromised by medical conditions may not be able to safely interact with all animals. Someone with a phobia or intense anxiety around animals would probably not benefit from animal therapy. 

Online therapy

As telehealth has become increasingly popular, the use of animals in online therapy sessions has been reviewed. There are a couple of ways online animal-assisted therapy can occur. Therapists may bring their pets or therapy animals into online sessions with clients, and clients can be encouraged to include their own aninal. The preliminary review conducted at the University of Saskatchewan noted that participants of an online therapy dog program felt a sense of connectedness and well-being and reported positive mental health impacts.

Animal-assisted therapy sessions can offer comfort and support to clients. However, if you are living with symptoms of anxiety, depression, or distress, it can be challenging to leave home. Through online therapy, you can partake in sessions from a device at home and choose a flexible time slot that fits your needs. While BetterHelp may not offer animal therapy, it can be an appropriate start to learn more about online therapy in general.

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Takeaway

Animal-assisted therapy can offer mental and physical benefits to a wide range of individuals, from those experiencing dementia to those with a mental illness. There are many types of this form of therapy, and clients can cuddle with cats, chat with dogs, or care for farm animals, depending on the type they choose. If you want to learn more about animal therapy, consider reaching out to a provider for further guidance.

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