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Pawsitive Influence: Animal Therapy, Mental Health Healers

While pet owners have been saying it for years, it’s now been scientifically proven that animals can have a positive effect on mental health. Nowhere is this phenomenon better demonstrated than through the growing use of therapy animals. From reducing stress and anxiety to helping build behavioral and cognitive skills, therapy animals are used to treat a wide variety of mental health disorders.

What we’ll learn today:

The wide world of therapy animals: what are they and what can they treat?

Access to animal therapy: where can you find it and is it covered by insurance?

What the science says on animal therapy: highlights from research studies

The therapy animal resume: can my pet become a therapy animal?

What is a therapy animal?

A therapy animal is an animal that has received special training or, in some cases, has the right temperament to perform a role in animal-assisted therapy. While most therapy animals are dogs, almost any species can be used as a therapy animal, depending on the setting. Other common species used in animal-assisted therapy include cats, horses, birds, small mammals, and even reptiles.

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What is animal-assisted therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy, also sometimes called pet-assisted therapy or pet therapy, is the practice of interacting with animals for therapeutic purposes in cases of mental, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive disorders.

The term animal-assisted therapy has been used broadly to describe a wide variety of treatments and interventions. However, the American Psychological Association defines animal-assisted therapy as “The therapeutic use of pets to enhance individuals’ physical, social, emotional, or cognitive functioning.”

Examples of animal-assisted therapy include:

  • Therapy dogs that comfort children with learning disabilities while they participate in reading and speech therapy sessions. Their presence has been shown to give children confidence and provide emotional support.
  • Therapy cats that visit nursing homes and hospice care centers to comfort patients. Their presence has been shown to engage patients, have a calming effect, and bring feelings of joy and happiness.
  • Therapy dogs that sit with victims of crimes while they give their statements to the police or testify in court. Their presence can provide emotional support and make it easier for victims to speak about their experiences, especially for children.
  • Therapy horses that are visited and cared for by patients battling anxiety, depression, and PTSD. The act of helping to care for these animals has been shown to help build self-esteem, empathy, and better emotional regulation.

What conditions can animal-assisted therapy treat?

Animal-assisted therapy is used to treat a wide variety of mental, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive conditions. It is also sometimes used to provide emotional support to patients with chronic pain, illnesses, and disabilities.

Therapy animals are most often used for:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Trauma
  • Grief
  • Loneliness
  • PTSD
  • Fears and phobias
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Learning disabilities
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Dementia
  • Cognitive and motor skill impairments
  • Addictions and substance abuse recovery
  • Eating disorders
  • Chronic illnesses

Where can you get animal-assisted therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy can be found in various settings, both public and private. While private sessions may or may not be covered by insurance (check with your provider), public programs are free to access. Many therapy dog and cat handlers volunteer their time through local organizations to provide animal-assisted therapy.

You’ll find animal-assisted therapy programs in:

  • Schools
  • Libraries
  • Hospitals
  • Police departments
  • Community centers
  • Nursing homes
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Hospice facilities
  • Farms and stables

You can search online to find local animal-assisted therapy programs in your area or consult your mental health professional for a referral.

How does animal-assisted therapy work?

The premise of animal-assisted therapy is largely based on tapping into the human-animal bond for a therapeutic effect. Exactly how this will be accomplished depends on the case, the patient, the handler, and the animal. For some, just the action of being in the animal’s presence can have a calming effect.

Others may find interacting with the animal, playing games, or helping care for the animal through feeding treats, brushing, etc., will provide therapeutic benefits. Children, in particular, tend to enjoy reading to therapy dogs, which can help build confidence and skills.

Benefits of animal-assisted therapy

Animal-assisted therapy can benefit by providing emotional support and comfort to lower stress and boost mood. While anecdotal evidence of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy has existed for quite some time, in recent years, there have been plenty of studies to back it up. Let’s look at what some of the science says.

According to research compiled by UCLA Health’s People-Animal Connection (PAC) Program and the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), animal-assisted therapy has been shown to:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increase dopamine (the happy hormone) and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone)
  • Help with mental stimulation and memory recall in patients with conditions such as Alzheimer’s
  • Improve language and social interactions in children with autism
  • Decrease agitated behaviors and increase social behaviors in dementia patients
  • Increase participation in social, emotional, and cognitive learning in children with learning disorders or trauma

Overall, the use of therapy animals has been shown to positively affect all types of patients by providing emotional support, something to focus on, and promoting feelings of joy and happiness.

How can my pet become a therapy animal?

Do you think your pet might make a good therapy animal? The first step is assessing their temperament. Therapy animals are typically easy-going, friendly, and enjoy interacting with new people. If this sounds like your pet, the next step is typically training and tests.

While there are no standard requirements for training and certifying therapy animals, local laws or regulations put forth by the facility you wish to work with will probably apply. You can find training classes and testing locally through certain training facilities or national organizations such as Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs United, or the American Kennel Club.

Caring for your pet as a therapy animal

Like all pets, pets that work as therapy animals need regular veterinary check-ups, vaccines, and health screenings. While these are all considered routine for any pet, most facilities that accept therapy animals have strict requirements on these items to ensure your pet is healthy, vaccinated, and parasite-free. Therapy animals can also benefit from having pet insurance to keep them protected in case of accidents or injuries on the job. While there are no special insurance plans for therapy animals, some pet insurance providers offer discounts for therapy animals that can be worth looking into.

The future of animal-assisted therapy

The human-animal bond continues to be both fascinating and remarkable. The future of animal-assisted therapy is looking bright between recent studies of its benefits, the consensus among mental health professionals, and the public's seeing the power of pets as healers.


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