Florence Nightingale most popularly documented the therapeutic effect of animals on patients in the late 1800s. Nightingale, considered the founder of modern nursing, noted how patients in a psychiatric facility responded to small animals. Having pets in treatment significantly reduced anxiety and stress in both children and adults, even facilitating their recovery from other ailments.¹
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has come a long way since it was first documented over 150 years ago and has profoundly impacted the mental and physical health of patients with many chronic and acute conditions. Even patients with common disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are excellent candidates for AAT. This kind of therapy has improved the quality of life for many people and, in some cases, even slowed their symptoms. If you’re curious about what AAT could do for you, read on to learn about its potential benefits.
Animal-assisted therapy, or AAT, uses pets or other highly trained animals to aid in the rehabilitation and recovery of patients with many kinds of health conditions. It can help more serious mental health conditions, like schizophrenia, and more common types, like depression.² AAT isn’t just for mental health concerns, either — it works just as well for dementia patients and those with common health concerns like high blood pressure. Therapy animals are different from service, support (emotional or otherwise), and work animals, as therapy animals primarily work in a clinical setting (such as a hospital or rehabilitation facility) but can also be seen in schools, nursing homes, and other places.³
Dogs are the most common therapy animals. Patients getting canine-assisted psychotherapy (CAP) can improve their social skills and expand their social networks; CAP can even promote long-term sobriety.⁴ Some other kinds of animals that can provide AAT include:
The more unique animals on this list — dolphins, wolfdogs, and wolves — are commonly recommended for patients dealing with addiction and substance abuse and come with some serious caveats to ensure your health and the animals’ health.
Though therapy animals are not owned by the patients they serve, their owners play an active part in their responsibilities. Owners and handlers of AAT animals go through extensive training to become certified. Training differs depending on your location, but a good example of what certification looks like is the animal-assisted therapy program at the Animal Behavior Institute. The animals are highly trained and tested in their obedience, temperament, and tolerance of noise and distractions and trained to learn new skills that comfort their patients.
However, the essential feature that distinguishes an AAT animal is that they love people and accept handling, even when it’s rough.³ Regular veterinary screenings are also important to rule out any illnesses that could compromise the health of the patients they come into contact with.²
AAT is not solely for patients with serious or acute illnesses. Animal-assisted therapy strongly impacts more common mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and even mood and eating disorders.
A session with a therapy animal can help with a variety of emotional and mental health issues. Some of these benefits include:¹
All interactions with a therapy animal are unique as the animal provides comfort without judgment, paying close attention to the patient’s emotions and stress levels and responding to any changes. Helping the doctor monitor the patient’s progress also improves the patient-doctor relationship,⁵ as the patient is more likely to open up if they feel happy or relaxed.¹
Below we’ve outlined some general health benefits, disease-specific health benefits, and physical health benefits of animal-assisted therapy.
AAT has significant benefits for cognitive diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s and neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, animal-assisted therapy can slow symptom progression and promote verbal communication. The therapy animals provide these patients with a calming distraction they can pet, receive comfort from, and establish a trusting connection.¹
People with ASD — particularly children — experience improved social skills and awareness, better focus, decreased aggression, and more happiness after playing or spending time with a trained therapy animal.⁶ Of course, this success depends on the animal's training and the severity of your symptoms. It can even depend on what kind of animal you meet for therapy.
While dogs are most often used for animal-assisted therapy in psychiatric facilities, they are far from the only kind. Horses are another common therapy animal in equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP). Some studies have noted that equine therapy (the caring and riding of horses) improves emotional, social, and communication skills in people with ASD and fosters a sense of responsibility.⁶
AAT in psychiatric facilities has been shown to decrease the symptoms of chronic mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. One study showed that CAP increased self-determination and self-esteem in chronic schizophrenia patients. Another study demonstrated a greater decrease in violence and aggression using EAP than CAP.⁴
Since AAT patients play with their therapy animals, they also get more physical activity in their daily life. A study done on chronic heart failure patients in Japan found that AAT increased the amount of assisted walking the patients did.⁵ Not only does canine-assisted walking increase motivation, but the patients themselves described it as a pleasant experience.
Feeling more confident, calmer, and happier can lead to better physical health. Because AAT reduces the stress levels in the body, it also lowers blood pressure and heart rate, relaxing the patient and focusing their attention on the animal. A session with a therapy animal can also reduce the pain patients, particularly children, feel after surgery, which can make recovery easier.⁷
Although animal-assisted therapy has many proven benefits, it's not for everyone. Patients can and will respond differently to different treatments, and what works for one patient may not work for another.
Cost is often a barrier to getting AAT. Treatment facilities and hospitals are limited in how much AAT they can offer and what kind of animal therapy they can safely and realistically provide. A small treatment center may only be able to provide pet therapy involving dogs and cats. Likewise, a treatment center with more resources may be able to provide equine, dolphin, or even wolfdog therapy.⁸ Your access to AAT also depends on what you can afford. AAT can be costly, ranging between $100 to $300 per session, depending on whether or not your health insurance covers it.⁵
Although the animals are trained to be calm, tolerant, and loving towards patients, they remain animals with their own instincts. Accidents can happen, and it is imperative that treatment centers make safety protocols clear to patients before recommending AAT.
Some criticize dolphin therapy as patients have been injured during treatment, and wildlife experts feel that the therapy promotes captivity. Dolphins might feel stressed while providing treatment, though the reasons for this are still under investigation. Wolf- or wolfdog-assisted therapy (provided on conservations) is becoming more popular with similar criticisms. Although there haven't been any reported injuries yet, therapists must be very cautious in recommending and overseeing this kind of AAT.⁸
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased our general awareness of zoonotic infection (illnesses that can transfer from an animal to a human). As such, there is some worry about using AAT in hospitals and on patients who are elderly, very young, or immunocompromised.⁴ The risks in question involve bacterial infections such as C. difficile and MRSA, as well as allergies and bites. However, the risks seem relatively low, thanks to protocols by the CDC and the facilities.⁹ The patient's health condition, strict adherence to safety and hygiene protocol, and the overall benefits of AAT are often enough to mitigate the risk.¹
Animal-assisted therapy has many physical, mental, and cognitive health benefits and can help many people regardless of health condition. However, you and your care team must take your temperament, medical history, and health goals into consideration before trying AAT. Different kinds of therapy animals work best for different people and conditions, and cost (and general practicality) may also impact your ability to partake in AAT. If your providers recommend AAT, you should carefully consider which kinds of animal therapy might work best. Ultimately, animal-assisted therapy can be rewarding and healing as long as measures are taken to ensure your and the animal's safety.
 Ernst. (2014). Animal-Assisted therapy: An exploration of its history, healing benefits, and how skilled nursing facilities can set up programs. Annals of Long-Term Care. https://www.hmpgloballearningnetwork.com/site/altc/articles/animal-assisted-therapy-exploration-its-history-healing-benefits-and-how-skilled-nursing
 What is animal assisted therapy? | TheraPet - Animal Assisted Therapy. (n.d.). https://therapet.org/about/what-is-animal-assisted-therapy/
 Reisen, J. (2021, August 27). Service Dogs, Working Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs: What’s the Difference? American Kennel Club. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/service-working-therapy-emotional-support-dogs/
 Bert, F., Gualano, M. R., Camussi, E., Pieve, G., Voglino, G., & Siliquini, R. (2016). Animal assisted intervention: A systematic review of benefits and risks. European journal of integrative medicine, 8(5), 695–706. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eujim.2016.05.005
 Koukourikos, Georgopoulou, Kourkouta, & Tsaloglidou. (2019). Benefits of animal assisted therapy in mental health. International Journal of Caring Sciences, 12(3), 1898. http://internationaljournalofcaringsciences.org/docs/64_koukorikos_review_12_3.pdf
 Benefits of Animal Therapy for Autism | Adult Autism Center. (2022, March 25). Adult Autism Center of Lifetime Learning. https://adultautismcenter.org/blog/animal-therapy-for-autism/
 Lovering, N. (2022, July 13). All About Animal-Assisted Therapy. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/health/animal-assisted-therapy
 Timothy Esteves. (2022, September 15). Pros and Cons of Animal-Assisted Therapy. American Addiction Centers. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/blog/pros-and-cons-of-animal-assisted-therapy
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, November 5). Animals in Health-Care Facilities. Infection Control. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/environmental/background/animals.html