A white Shih Tzu puppy runs and plays happily in a field of grass.Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a form of complementary and alternative medicine that integrates animals into healthcare treatment plans. AAT isn’t necessarily a treatment in and of itself; rather, it’s used to enhance a patient’s therapy or treatment plan. AAT can be used to treat a wide array of physical and mental health conditions, ranging from anxiety and depression to heart disease and cancer.

Though the full extent of its benefits is still being studied, AAT is thought to be a highly promising practice that may be effective for many patients. In general, interacting with animals and caring for pets has many documented health benefits for people — if simply being around animals can improve a patient’s health, then there is huge potential for formally integrating animals into treatment plans.

However, there’s more to AAT than simply petting a dog or snuggling with a cat. If you’re looking to incorporate AAT into your own treatment plans or otherwise grow your healthcare practice, it’s crucial to learn more about the value of AAT and how you can harness its power to help your patients:

Types of Animal-Assisted Therapy

AAT falls under the larger umbrella of animal-assisted interventions. There are several different ways that animals can be classified and used as part of an intervention plan:

  • Service animal: A service animal is defined as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” They are working animals whose job is to assist someone with a disability; they are not considered pets. Service animals are legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Emotional support animal (ESA): An ESA is a pet who provides comfort and companionship to its owner. They may be trained to offer support and love for their owner, but they are not trained to assist someone with a disability the way that service animals are. ESAs are not legally protected under the ADA, though some state and local governments may offer protections and accommodations for ESAs.
  • Therapy animal: A therapy animal is an animal who is trained to give emotional, mental, or psychological benefits to people other than their owner. They often are taken to facility settings — such as hospitals, retirement homes, and schools — to do their work. Therapy animals are not legally protected under the ADA.

It’s worth noting that not all of these types of animals play a role in AAT. Because service animals are trained to assist their owner with their disability, they are not able to be used in therapy settings. Similarly, ESAs are trained to support their owners and may not be able to offer the same benefits to other people.

Therapy animals, on the other hand, are ideal for use in AAT settings. Dogs are the most common working animals, but other animals — including horses, cats, rabbits, rats, fish, and birds — can also be used for AAT. The type of animal used in AAT depends on what therapy animals are available, as well as the patient’s personal needs and preferences.

For example, a child with a learning disability who is working on their reading skills may benefit from reading aloud to a therapy dog, while someone with a physical impairment may get greater therapeutic benefit from horseback riding.

The Changing Landscape of Therapy Animals

As more people understand the benefits of being around animals, there has been a growing trend of using animals for therapeutic purposes, making AAT more accessible to patients who may benefit from it. However, it has also paved the way for controversy, as countless pet owners attempt to pass their pets off as service dogs or emotional support animals. Most pet owners engage in this practice to enjoy the legal protections afforded to ADA-protected service animals, such as being able to bring their pet into a restaurant or on an airplane.

The rise in all kinds of fraudulent therapeutic animals actively harms patients who need their support. People with disabilities who need their service animal may be denied services or entry to various places or could be illegally questioned about their service animal.

Further, therapeutic animals (particularly service animals) must undergo comprehensive training in order to do their work safely. Even the best-behaved pets are not as well trained, and untrained animals pose a safety risk to other people and animals in public spaces. There have been multiple recorded instances of purported ESAs attacking people and legitimate service animals.

Not only is this practice actually dangerous, but it gives therapeutic animals a bad name and makes practices like AAT seem riskier than they actually are. In reality, AAT does pose some risks — such as animals behaving dangerously or accidentally passing on unhealthy bacteria — but these risks are minimal and fairly easy to mitigate.

Who Can Pet Therapy Help?

Despite the potential risks, AAT can help individuals dealing with a range of physical and mental health conditions, but it may be especially therapeutic for:

In general, the only people who won’t benefit from AAT are individuals who dislike or are afraid of animals. There may still be a form of AAT that works for animal-averse patients since there are so many different kinds of therapy animals available.

Further, because of the specific benefits of AAT, it may be extra advantageous in two healthcare settings in particular: physical therapy and psychological therapy.

Benefits for Physical Therapy

Some of the physical health benefits of AAT include:

  • Lowered blood pressure;
  • Increased joint movement;
  • Diminished physical pain;
  • Decreased recovery time;
  • Boosted motivation.

Because of these benefits, AAT has exciting implications for physical therapists and occupational therapists that could improve their work and result in more positive outcomes for their patients. Keep in mind that patients still require formal treatment and must put in the effort to improve their physical health; AAT is simply a tool that can help lessen that burden and help them make the most of their efforts.

Benefits for Psychological Therapy

AAT has similarly impressive benefits for psychological and mental health:

  • Decreased feelings of loneliness;
  • Reduced stress and anxiety;
  • Boosted mood;
  • Increased feelings of relaxation;
  • Improved engagement in treatment sessions.

Many of these effects have been observed in both group and individual therapy sessions, making AAT a helpful option for a variety of mental health professionals. While animals cannot provide treatment, they can act as a catalyst that makes therapy even more effective — both during a session and in therapeutic practices that patients take home after the fact.

Of course, these are only the benefits that have been currently documented in research about AAT. As AAT continues to grow in popularity and helps more patients improve their physical and mental wellbeing, researchers may discover an even greater number of ways that therapy animals can promote and bolster human health.

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