Animal-Assisted Therapy

What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy is a therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals, such as horses, dogs, cats, pigs, and birds, into the treatment plan. It is used to enhance and complement the benefits of traditional therapy.

When It's Used

Animal-assisted therapy can be a useful intervention for individuals or groups. A meta-analysis of 49 studies reporting on animal-assisted therapy found positive outcomes and overall improved emotional well-being in those with autism, medical conditions, or behavioral issues. Another review of randomized, controlled studies found that animal-assisted therapy can be helpful for those battling illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, or addiction. Anyone who dislikes or fears animals or is allergic to them, is not a likely candidate for this particular intervention.

What to Expect

Depending on the nature of your therapy and the type of animal involved, you may 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 may 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 may not have a relationship with a psychotherapist, but a volunteer with a trained therapy pet might visit you.

How It Works

Animals can provide a sense of calm, comfort, or safety and divert attention away from a stressful situation and toward one that provides pleasure. 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 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 the primary animals 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.

Sources

Nimer J., Lundahl B. Animal-assisted therapy: a meta-analysis. Anthrozoos.

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.