Animal-assisted therapy is using an animal as part of goal-oriented therapy sessions. There are psychological and physiological benefits to animal-assisted therapy.
The American Humane Association defines animal-assisted therapy on their website as:
“A goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical healthcare treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is delivered or directed by a professional health or human service [professional] who demonstrates skill and expertise regarding the clinical applications of human-animal interactions.”
Facts about animal-assisted therapy
1. There’s no singular nor standardized approach to animal-assisted therapy
Therapy animals support the therapeutic process rather than leading it. A therapy animal could be involved in a wide range of therapies. Examples include equine therapy for kids with anxiety and canine therapy for childhood trauma.
The therapy animal might simply be in the session to offer comfort. Or, it may take a more active role, like when a therapy client interacts with the animal by grooming it or walking with it.
2. They’re not service animals
Therapy animals and service animals have different roles.
Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks for people with conditions that are challenging to manage. Service dogs can be a huge gift in helping these folks live functional lives, says Teresa Lodato, a certified professional co-active coach out of Alamo, California.
“A therapy animal, on the other hand, is used for specific tasks like education (or) stress relief,” she explains.
“One way to identify which is which (is that) service dogs work solely for their human companion. Therapy animals are handled by a human but are providing therapy or education to a third person or party.”
Therapist Dr. Monika Kreinberg of Mind Wellness Center adds that “service dogs can provide many different types of services [such as guiding] the blind or alert[ing] for diabetes and seizures.”
But she clarifies, “An animal used within the scope of therapy — its role is to assist with the processing of emotions. Therapy animals are often used as extra help to connect with clients and help them go through the motions of therapy.”
3. Animals used for therapy include more than dogs and horses
Since pet therapy animals don’t need task-specific training the way service animals do, there are more kinds of animals that can participate.
Nurse practitioner Becky Morrison says, “my English Mastiff is a visiting therapy dog and personal therapy dog. In Alberta, Canada, we have the PALS program — Pet Access League Society — dogs and cats are certified as visiting therapy animals.”
Dogs, cats, and horses aren’t all, though. Other animals therapists may use for animal-assisted therapy include:
- guinea pigs
4. They help folks with a variety of causes and settings
Animal-assisted therapy isn’t always at a clinician’s office.
“We go into various healthcare settings from hospitals, hospice, nursing homes, shelters, even the airport,” Morrison says of her visiting therapy dog.
Sessions can be individual or for groups and can happen in many different locations, such as:
- rehabilitation centers
- correctional facilities
Benefits of animal-assisted therapy
“Using animals in therapy can be highly effective,” says Kreinberg.
A therapy animal provides a safe topic of conversation to kick start the connection between therapist and client. In addition to being a source of comfort and pleasant distraction, the animal creates a talking point to spark engagement.
There are medical benefits, too.
A 2018 study shows that seeing and touching animals can trigger positive physiological changes, including higher levels of:
A reduced baseline cortisol level is another benefit.
Research from 2016 has also linked animal-assisted therapy to improved blood flow in people experiencing heart failure. It may even reduce blood pressure for some people.
Does animal-assisted therapy really work?
It’s helpful, according to Kreinberg. She says she often brought her therapy dog along on child abuse cases at Family Court. Kreinberg says her dog helped connect with children who lost trust in adults due to abuse.
Research from 2016 pinpoints the therapeutic bond as being one of the most important factors in therapy success. In other words, being able to trust your therapist matters. Animals can help to foster this trust.
A 2019 abstract covering seven studies examined canine-assisted psychotherapy for youth 10–19 years old experiencing mental health issues. It found that canine-assisted psychotherapy had a positive impact on behaviors and conditions like:
- internalizing disorders
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- externalizing disorders (external-facing impulse challenges like conduct disorders)
The mental health benefits of animal-assisted therapy for kids go even further.
A 2015 study linked therapeutic time with animals to reduced pain levels after surgery. Children hospitalized for cancer treatment also experienced reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, thanks to time spent in animal-assisted therapy.
Animal-assisted therapy can provide both mental health and medical benefits.
Unlike service dogs, animal-assisted therapy animals don’t receive person-specific training. However, they should have basic training and socialization to stay calm and manageable.
Because there aren’t specific tasks they need to learn, more types of animals can participate in animal-assisted therapy.
Your insurance may not cover animal-assisted therapy, but it’s worth looking into. Sessions can range in price from $100 to over $300, depending on what the session entails and who’s in charge. You may be able to get a lower rate if you’re willing to work with a clinical intern rather than a licensed therapist.
If you’re interested in trying animal-assisted therapy, having a conversation with a doctor or mental health specialist is a good place to start.