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Animal-Assisted Therapy

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Animal-assisted therapy is a therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals, such as horses, dogs, cats, and birds, into the treatment plan.

The client, therapist, and animal work together in therapeutic activities that are outlined in a treatment plan, with clear goals for change, measurable objectives, and the expectation of identifiable progress toward the treatment goals. The therapy can take many forms, based on the patient, the animal, and the goals for treatment.

Animal-assisted therapy is used to enhance and complement the benefits of traditional therapy.

When It's Used

Animal-assisted therapy can be a useful intervention for some individuals or groups. It can help with a variety of experiences and conditions including:

Anyone who dislikes or fears animals or is allergic to them, is not a likely candidate for this particular intervention.

While animal-assisted therapy can help many people, more rigorous clinical trials are needed to assess its efficacy. Research suggests that some studies of the treatment are methodologically flawed.

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How It Works

Animal-assisted therapy is rooted in the bond that can develop between people and animals. Animals can provide a sense of calm, comfort, or safety and divert attention away from a stressful situation and toward one that provides pleasure. Animals can help combat loneliness and boost social support, both through interactions with the animal and interactions that involve other people. Animals can lead people to get more physical activity than they would otherwise.

Advocates of animal-assisted therapy say that developing a bond with an animal can help people develop a better sense of self-worth and trust, stabilize their emotions, and improve their communication, self-regulation, and socialization skills.

What to Expect

Depending on the nature of your therapy and the type of animal involved, you might keep a dog, cat, or other pet at home and at your side throughout the day for emotional support, or you might learn to ride and care for a therapy horse that is housed at an equestrian school.

You and your therapist may discuss your animal while you are working with it, or you might set aside another time to talk about your experiences. If you are in a hospital, school, nursing home, rehabilitation center, or another type of community center, you might not have a relationship with a psychotherapist, but a volunteer with a trained therapy pet might visit you.

What to Look for in an Animal-Assisted Therapist

Animal-assisted therapy often serves in conjunction with traditional work done by a licensed psychotherapist, social worker, or other mental health care provider.

Dogs are most often used, although various animal-assisted programs offer different animals for people with different physical and emotional needs. Service dogs may come from animal shelters or be raised in selective breeding programs, but they must undergo formal training to be certified. In some cases, it may be necessary to obtain a written prescription or a letter from a medical doctor, licensed psychotherapist, or social worker to certify or register your own therapy or emotional-support animal. You can find information and groups that provide trained service dogs in your area through Assistance Dogs International. A professional mental health care provider who is familiar with animal-assisted therapies can help you get certification for your own pet or locate a program or animal that is right for you. Therapists may also partner with an animal-therapy program, such as Pet Partners, to provide individuals or groups with trained therapy animals.

It's important to find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable. You may want to ask the therapist a few questions before committing to work with them. Questions may include:

  • How would they help with your particular concerns?
  • Have they dealt with this type of problem before?
  • What is their process?
  • What is their timeline for treatment?
Charry-Sánchez, J.D., et al. Animal-assisted therapy in adults: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. August 2018; Volume 32:169-180.
Kamioka H, Okada S, Tsutani K, et al. Effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. April 2014; 22(2):371-390.
Nimer J., Lundahl B. Animal-assisted therapy: a meta-analysis. Anthrozoos.
Marcus, D. The Science Behind Animal-Assisted Therapy. Current Pain and Headache Reports. 2013; volume 17, Article number: 322.
Mandrá, P.P. Animal assisted therapy: systematic review of literature. SciELO Brazil. 2019; CoDAS 31 (3).
Last updated: 08/19/2022