Animal Therapy

man sitting with dog and cat

In the book Animal Therapist by Kay Frydenborg, the author talks about an autistic girl who at one time did not respond to any living being, human or animal….that is until she met Wombat…Wombat being a ferret of course!

“She spoke to [Wombat] and set him gently on the floor; then she got down on the floor herself to crawl along beside the little animal, talking to him all the while,” describes Frydenborg. “At the end of the visit, the little girl kissed the ferret good-bye and waved to him—things she had never done before.”

If you’ve ever spent time with a dog, a cat, a horse or another friendly creature…you probably have at least a sense of how positive the interaction between a human and animal can be. But do you know the extent of how therapeutic it can be?

If you have a passion and compassion for both animals and people and are intrigued by the psychological, physical, cognitive, social and motivational benefits associated with the human-animal bond, you might consider animal therapy as part of your career path and profession.

97% of family doctors and general practitioners say having a pet is good for your health.

Source: Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation/Cohen Research Group (2014)

What is Animal Therapy?

Pet Partners (formerly called the Delta Society) is considered a leading authority in animal and pet therapy and regarding the bond that can form between animals and humans. The organization trains volunteers—human-animal teams, such as person and their pet—to visit people who could really benefit from spending time with animals. According to their website, Pet Partners has about 11,000 national and international teams that help approximately one million individuals per year.

Pet Partners defines Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) as  “a goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession.”

AAT can benefit a person’s “physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning,” adds Pet Partners, and it can be delivered as part of individual or group therapy.

Examples of places where animal therapy might take place include schools, daycares, hospitals, private practice, nursing homes, physical therapy facilities, juvenile and adult correctional facilities, mental health centers,  after-school programs, hospices, camps (i.e. for sick kids), treatment centers, libraries (i.e. as part of a reading program), shelters, home visits, veteran facilities and other places.

Pet Partners clarifies that there is a difference between Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA). The latter tends to be more casual and less directed (i.e. it is not aimed at a particular client or condition.) An example of an animal-assisted activity might be an individual bringing their dog to visit residents at a long term care facility but there are no planned goals or outcomes. Whereas, an example of animal-assisted therapy might involve a physical therapist incorporating horseback riding to help a patient become comfortable using certain muscles to improve their mobility; or a mental health counselor facilitating someone with anxiety to walk with a dog to the rhythm of a relaxing song.


“Animal-assisted therapy is now being prescribed by doctors for their human patients.” ~ Pet Partners


According to Cynthia K. Chandler, in her book Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling, 2nd edition (Routledge, 2012) some examples of common animal therapy techniques range from “give and receive affection with an animal,” “learn to communicate with an animal,” and “learn to feed and care for an animal,” to “discuss how an animal might feel in certain situations,” and “develop a cooperative plan to accomplish something with the animal.”

It is not just dogs and horses that are therapy animals.
Therapy animals can also include cats, guinea pigs, pigs, llamas, dolphins, rabbits, chickens, fish, hamsters, goats….

Benefits of Animal Therapy

“Benefits of the human-animal bond include: decreased blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and an enhanced feeling of well-being,” states HABRI (Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation. Animals also benefit from their relationship with humans. It’s been found that companionship and social support helps pets and animals live longer, healthier lives in addition to the type of quality care they would otherwise not receive.”

Animal therapy can benefit people of all ages with a whole gamut of needs. These are just some of the conditions or circumstances for which treatment plans have incorporated animal assisted-therapy:

  • Abuse victims
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Anxiety
  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Cancer
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Dealing with grief and loss
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Hearing impairments
  • Learning difficulties
  • Loneliness/isolation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Memory difficulties
  • Mobility issues
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Palliative care /coping with life-threatening diseases
  • Post traumatic stress disorder
  • Recreational and fitness needs
  • Spinal cord/brain injuries
  • Trouble with motor skills
  • Trouble with social skills
  • Visual impairments

Interacting with animals helps people live healthier lives too. For example, according to HABRI’s article “Cardiovascular Health”, owning a cat can reduce a person’s risk of having a heart attack and dog owners generally have lower blood pressure and better cholesterol levels due to exercise.

Career Professionals that Incorporate Animal Therapy

Numerous types of health and human service professionals incorporate animal-assisted therapy into their practice. Specialized training is key so that professionals can successfully incorporate animal-assisted therapy techniques to accomplish the social, educational, occupational, physical, psychological and/or other goals tailored to the individual clients and groups they are working with.

Examples of career professionals that employ animal therapy include:

  • Mental health counselors
  • Marriage and family therapists
  • Special education teachers
  • Nurses
  • Social workers
  • Program managers
  • Addition counselors
  • Doctors
  • Child life specialists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Physical therapists
  • Speech-language pathologists
  • Recreation therapists
  • Other health/human service professionals

There are also a number of non-profit organizations that recruit volunteers and provide training and certification to them so they can successfully provide animal-assisted therapy.  Just some of these organizations include Pet Partners, Paws for Friendship, PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International, and Intermountain Therapy Animals.


“Benefits of the human-animal bond include: decreased blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and an enhanced feeling of well-being.” ~ HABRI (Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation)


Animal Therapy Training

As was previously mentioned, if you wish to volunteer for a reputable animal-assisted therapy organization, you must go through the training/certification they require.

Healthcare and human service professionals who wish to become specialized in animal-assisted therapy should also take training from a reputable organization or institution. Pet Partners offers courses, such as an AAT Applications course that prepares professionals to work with trained animal-human teams and teaches them animal-assisted therapy techniques.

Pet Partners’ websites also lists other organizations and institutions that offers courses and certification programs geared for professionals who wish to become specialized in animal therapy.

  • References:
  • Animal Therapist by Kay Frydenborg (Chelsea House Publishers, 2006)
  • Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling (2nd edition) by Cynthia K. Chandler (Routledge, 2012)