How Does Animal Therapy Work

Animal Therapy where dogs, horses, and other animals help people heal, is a cool way to recover from both physical and mental issues. Simply being around these animals has been shown to really help in medical and mental health settings, in this article we’re going to discuss about what is pet therapy and how does animal therapy work.

How does Animal Assisted Therapy work
Photo by Tahir Xalfakuliyev:

Table of Contents

Introduction to Animal-Assisted  Therapy

Animal therapy, also known as pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy, involves using animals to assist people dealing with physical or mental health conditions. These animals offer various forms of support, from providing comfort to even taking direct actions in emergencies. It’s important to note that animal therapy is a complementary or alternative approach meant to enhance, not replace, other treatments.

The main aim of animal-assisted therapy is to alleviate symptoms and help individuals cope with their conditions. The type of therapy can vary widely based on the person’s specific condition, the type of animal involved, and the therapy they offer.

At the heart of animal therapy is the human-animal bond—a deep connection between people and animals. Interacting with friendly animals can create this special bond, which often leads to a sense of calm and well-being. This connection has many benefits, including reducing boredom, increasing physical activity through activities like walks and play, offering companionship, reducing loneliness, encouraging social interactions, and improving overall mood and well-being.

These positive interactions with animals can lead to reduced stress and a more balanced mental and emotional state. Animal therapy harnesses the power of this bond in a focused manner to achieve therapeutic goals. It’s a unique and heartwarming approach to improving health and happiness.

Animal-Assisted Therapy: How It Works

Animal therapy aims to achieve various health and well-being goals based on individual needs. Depending on one’s condition and requirements, the therapy can focus on:

    • Offering comfort and easing pain.
    • Enhancing movement and motor abilities.
    • Building social or behavioral skills.
    • Motivating individuals for activities, be it exercise or social interaction.

The heart of this therapeutic approach is the handler-animal duo. Typically, the handler, often the animal’s owner, brings the pet to sessions, working under medical supervision to achieve the therapy’s objectives.

Various organizations train and connect these handlers to medical professionals. Most handlers volunteer their time and expertise. To ensure the highest standards, both the animal and handler undergo a rigorous certification process.

Handlers take courses to understand and manage therapy interactions. The animals, meanwhile, have their health records checked, undergo temperament tests, and receive obedience training. This comprehensive vetting ensures everyone’s safety and ensures the best possible therapeutic experience.

It’s crucial to distinguish between therapy and service animals. While therapy animals offer comfort and aid in specific sessions, service animals assist individuals daily, often with specific disabilities. Thus, therapy animals don’t enjoy the same rights as service animals, like entering certain business establishments.

Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Mental Health:

Animal therapy has proven to be a source of comfort and healing for a wide range of health concerns, particularly in the realm of mental health. According to Pet Partners, these therapies can positively impact various aspects of well-being by:

    • Reducing anxiety and stress.
    • Easing perceptions of pain.
    • Diminishing feelings of fear or worry.
    • Boosting feelings of social support.
    • Offering motivation, stimulation, and enhanced focus.

Extensive research indicates that animal therapy brings broad benefits to both physical and psychological health. It is most promising in alleviating markers of anxiety and depression across different age groups and conditions.

For instance, therapy dogs have been found to enhance the effectiveness of mental health treatments for adolescents, underlining its potential in addressing conditions like dementia, depression, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and schizophrenia.

Studies involving therapy horses and dogs have even shown promise in helping individuals dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Moreover, for those undergoing rehabilitation for drug use disorders, working alongside animals often leads to an improved sense of well-being.

Animal therapy isn’t just about the soothing presence of animals; it’s a powerful tool that aids individuals in their journey toward better mental and emotional health.

Animal Therapy: A Boost to Physical Health

Animal therapy isn’t just for the mind; it offers significant benefits for physical health too. Here are some conditions where this unique therapy has made a difference:

    • Epilepsy
    • Heart failure
    • Pain resulting from cancer treatments
    • Recovery post-surgery
    • Rehabilitation following a stroke or other motor skill impairments

In such cases, the presence and interaction with an animal can be motivating, uplifting, and even pain-relieving. It can inspire individuals to stick with their therapeutic routines, engage in proper movement, and maintain regular exercise.

Furthermore, many long-term care homes are integrating pet therapy into their programs. The reason? It’s been shown to elevate the mood and overall well-being of their residents. For instance, a study highlighted in Psychogeriatrics found that dog-assisted therapy brought down symptoms of depression in elderly care facilities. The interactions with dogs not only sparked joy but also encouraged socializing and positive emotions.

Still, while the potential of animal therapy is promising, it’s essential to note that ongoing research is needed to fully understand its impact and advantages.

Understanding the Risks of Animal-Assisted Therapy

While animal-assisted therapy offers numerous benefits, like all therapeutic interventions, it comes with its set of risks. Ensuring the safety and well-being of both the patient and the animal is crucial. Here are the main risks to consider:

    • Allergies and Health Concerns: The most common concern is allergies, especially with animals like dogs. People allergic to animal dander could experience adverse reactions, making it essential to consider this before starting therapy.
    • Emotional Attachment: Some individuals might form a deep emotional bond with the therapy animal, leading to possessiveness. Such strong attachments could, in some cases, reduce the effectiveness of the therapy or cause additional emotional distress.
    • Safety and Sanitation: Hospitals and therapy centers must uphold strict sanitation standards to ensure patients’ safety. Though therapy animals undergo rigorous training and health checks, there’s always a minuscule risk of them carrying infections.
    • Animal Behavior: Every animal has its temperament. Even well-trained therapy animals can sometimes be unpredictable. Proper handler training and thorough animal screening are essential to minimize any risk of injury.
    • Emotional Well-being of the Animal: It’s equally important to ensure that therapy animals are treated well and not subjected to stress or discomfort.

Dogs and Horses Assisted Therapy: How It Works

Dogs and horses play a significant role in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) due to their unique characteristics and abilities. Here’s how dog-assisted therapy and horse-assisted therapy work:

Dog-Assisted Animal Therapy:

Selection and Training: Specially trained therapy dogs are selected for their temperament, sociability, and ability to remain calm in various situations. They undergo rigorous training to ensure they respond appropriately to individuals’ needs and emotions.

Building Trust: In therapy sessions, individuals build trust and form a bond with the therapy dog. The presence of a friendly and non-judgmental dog can create a safe space for clients to open up and connect emotionally.

Tailored Activities: Therapy dogs participate in tailored activities with individuals. These activities can include playing, walking, or simply spending time together. Such interactions provide emotional support and promote relaxation.

Achieving Goals: Therapy dogs assist individuals in achieving specific therapeutic goals. For example, a dog can motivate someone to engage in physical activities like walking or throwing a ball, which is especially beneficial for those undergoing physical rehabilitation.

Emotional Connection: The unconditional love and companionship offered by therapy dogs can help individuals manage stress, anxiety, and depression. The emotional connection with the dog can have a profound positive impact on mental health.

Horse-Assisted Therapy (Equine-Assisted Therapy):

Horse Selection: Equine therapy involves carefully selecting horses known for their gentle nature and suitability for therapeutic purposes. Horses are particularly intuitive and responsive to human emotions.

Building Relationships: Individuals in horse-assisted therapy form relationships with horses through grooming, feeding, and other activities. The process of building trust and communication with these majestic animals is a fundamental part of the therapy.

Nonverbal Communication: Horses are highly sensitive to nonverbal cues, making them excellent partners for individuals working on communication and interpersonal skills. Horses respond to body language and emotions, providing immediate feedback.

Therapeutic Activities: Therapists create structured activities that involve the horses, such as leading them through an obstacle course or riding. These activities can address a range of physical, emotional, and social goals.

Self-Reflection: The powerful presence of horses encourages self-reflection and emotional awareness. Individuals often discover insights into their emotions and behaviors during equine therapy sessions.

Empowerment: Successfully working with a horse can boost self-esteem and confidence. It fosters a sense of achievement and empowerment.

Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD):

PSDs are highly trained to assist individuals with specific psychiatric disabilities, such as PTSD, anxiety disorders, and depression.

They are trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate the symptoms of the person’s condition, such as alerting them to oncoming panic attacks, providing deep pressure therapy during moments of distress, or interrupting harmful behaviors.

PSDs have legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and are allowed to accompany their handlers in public places, including restaurants, stores, and public transportation.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA):

ESAs provide emotional comfort and support to individuals with mental health conditions, but they do not require specific training to perform tasks.

ESAs are not granted the same legal access rights as service dogs. However, they are protected under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), allowing them to live in no-pet housing and travel in the cabin of an aircraft with their owner, respectively.

To qualify for an ESA, individuals typically require a recommendation from a licensed mental health professional.

In summary, while both PSDs and ESAs offer valuable emotional support, PSDs undergo extensive training to perform specific tasks to assist their handlers with psychiatric disabilities. ESAs, on the other hand, provide comfort and companionship but do not require the same level of training and have different legal protections.

10 Mental Health Benefits of Pets

The companionship and bond with pets can have a profoundly positive impact on mental health. Here are ten mental health benefits of having pets:

  • Stress Reduction: Interacting with pets can lower stress levels, reducing the production of stress hormones like cortisol.
  • Mood Enhancement: Pets’ unconditional love and affection can boost mood, helping to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Social Interaction: Walking a dog or engaging in pet-related activities often leads to increased social interaction and a sense of belonging.
  • Reduced Loneliness: The companionship of pets can combat feelings of loneliness, especially for those living alone.
  • Emotional Support: Pets provide a source of emotional support during difficult times, such as loss or trauma.
  • Physical Activity: Owning dogs, in particular, encourages physical activity through regular walks and play, which can improve physical and mental health.
  • Routine and Structure: Caring for pets establishes daily routines, offering structure and purpose, which can be especially beneficial for individuals with mental health conditions.
  • Mindfulness and Relaxation: Spending time with pets promotes mindfulness and relaxation, helping to calm racing thoughts and anxiety.
  • Sense of Responsibility: Caring for a pet instills a sense of responsibility and self-worth, boosting self-esteem.
  • Unconditional Love: The unwavering love and companionship of pets create a strong emotional bond, promoting a sense of security and happiness.


Animal therapy acts as a supplementary approach to traditional treatments. While it offers unique benefits, it shouldn’t replace primary treatments like psychotherapy or physical therapy. It’s essential to understand that animal therapy is an addition, not a substitution.

Not everyone may find comfort or benefit in animal therapy. Those unsure or uninterested in this approach can always explore other therapeutic alternatives tailored to their specific needs.


The mental health benefits of pets are significant and diverse. From reducing stress to providing emotional support and promoting physical activity, the presence of pets enriches our lives in numerous ways. This article has explored the remarkable positive impact that pets can have on our mental well-being. Whether it’s the companionship of a loyal dog, the calming presence of a cat, or the joy of interacting with smaller animals, the bond between humans and their pets is a source of comfort, happiness, and healing. Embracing the benefits of pet ownership can be a valuable complement to one’s mental health journey, offering solace and support in times of need.


AAT is a therapeutic approach that involves interactions with trained animals to improve physical, emotional, and social well-being. It’s used to complement traditional therapies.

While dogs and horses are common, a variety of animals, including cats, rabbits, and birds, can be used in AAT, depending on the therapeutic goals.

AAT involves specially trained animals working under the guidance of a therapist to achieve specific therapeutic goals. Having a pet at home provides companionship but isn’t a formal therapeutic approach.

AAT can benefit people of all ages with various needs, including those with physical disabilities, emotional or behavioral challenges, and mental health conditions.

AAT offers numerous benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety, improved mood, enhanced social skills, increased motivation, and physical rehabilitation, among others.

Look for practitioners or therapists who are certified in AAT. They should have specialized training and experience in working with therapy animals.

While AAT is generally safe, it’s essential to ensure that the animals involved are well-trained and properly cared for to minimize any potential risks, such as allergies or animal-related accidents.

Generally, AAT sessions involve trained therapy animals rather than personal pets. However, some programs may allow supervised interactions between clients and their own well-behaved pets.

To become involved in AAT as a volunteer or handler, you can reach out to local AAT organizations, shelters, or therapy animal programs to inquire about training and volunteer opportunities.