A Guide to Animal-Assisted Intervention

A dog wears a red vest with the words “therapy dog” written on the side.

Animal-assisted intervention (AAI) refers to any use of animals for the benefit of humans. This is a very broad term, but it is often used in the context of health or development benefits. It is important to note that while some data is available on the benefits of animal-assisted intervention, especially as a therapeutic tool, more research is necessary and, currently, the vast majority of evidence is anecdotal. The term “animal-assisted intervention” is an umbrella term that encapsulates many other practices, such as animal-assisted therapy, animal-assisted activities, and animal-assisted education.

Why Are Animal-Assisted Interventions Important?

In addition to the tasks that animals may be able to perform, animal-assisted interventions are also particularly helpful due to the human-animal bond. This is a symbiotic relationship that is found to produce feel-good chemicals. Furthermore, using animals in lieu of other options or as a preventative option can actually even save on expenses. In fact, a 2015 university study estimates that pet ownership saves Americans 11.7 billion dollars in health care expenses every year.

Who Can Benefit From Animal-Assisted Intervention?

Animal-assisted interventions can help almost anyone in various capacities, but they can be especially helpful for:

  • People with mobility limitations;
  • People with limited sight;
  • People with limited hearing;
  • People with anxiety disorders;
  • People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD);
  • People with epilepsy;
  • People with cardiovascular disease;
  • People in physical therapy;
  • People in rehabilitation;
  • People in learning environments;
  • People dealing with stressful life situations;
  • Cancer patients;
  • Senior citizens.

What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

As the name implies, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) refers to a range of therapeutic applications of animal-assisted intervention. This therapy could be physical or mental, and short- or long-term. The strongest evidence of the benefits of pet therapy is the reduction of blood pressure and cortisol associated with the practice, though research is ongoing in this area and other applications are being tested to measure other potential benefits for a diverse range of patients and conditions.

How Animal-Assisted Therapy Works

There are many different types of animal-assisted therapy, and therapy options also may be personalized based on the needs of the individual receiving therapy. Animal-assisted therapy is usually used to complement other forms of therapy. The most common types of animals used for this type of therapy are dogs, cats, and horses, although virtually any kind of animal can be employed. In most cases, the therapeutic effects will come from the comfort of the animal, or from the practice of caring for the animal.

Animal-assisted therapy can last for any amount of time depending on the type of therapy and individuals involved. However, animal-assisted therapy is often a long-term process, especially in the case of people gaining emotional support from a pet. Animal-assisted therapy may also include a range of professionals or generalized volunteers. Although there is certainly such a thing as self-directed pet therapy, some forms require the guidance of a professional, such as a counselor, social worker, physical therapist, or occupational therapist. However, not every professional in these fields will have the specialty training or resources to conduct animal-assisted therapy. Nevertheless, they often will be able to recommend and direct you to a professional or organization that does.

What Kinds of Animals Can Be Therapy Animals?

As previously stated, the animals most commonly used for animal-assisted therapy are dogs and horses, although virtually any type of animal can be used. However, in addition to dogs, cats, and horses, some other animals that are relatively common in animal-assisted therapy include:

  • Hamsters;
  • Gerbils;
  • Guinea pigs;
  • Rabbits;
  • Chinchillas;
  • Ferrets;
  • Fish;
  • Lizards;
  • Snakes;
  • Birds;
  • Pigs;
  • Donkeys;
  • Sheep;
  • Goats;
  • Cows.

Essentially any type of animal that can provide companionship or can be cared for can be used in animal-assisted therapy. Therefore, the most commonly used animals are often those that are most easily accessible.

Where Is Animal-Assisted Therapy Used?

As stated, animal-assisted therapy is used in a variety of fields, particularly those that involve any form of rehabilitation, education, or therapy.

Mental Health Work

Animal-assisted therapy can be used to help treat issues such as:

  • Generalized anxiety;
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder;
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder;
  • Depression;
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder;
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder;
  • Borderline Personality Disorder;
  • Schizophrenia;
  • Bipolar Disorder;
  • Anorexia Nervosa;
  • Bulimia Nervosa;
  • Binge Eating Disorder;
  • Dissociation;
  • Phobias;
  • Stress.

These are only a few of the issues related to mental health that can be improved through animal-assisted therapy. The applications of animal-assisted therapy are wide and are often complementary to other therapy methods. Generally, animal-assisted therapy is used for comfort and/or to provide a healthy emotional outlet and/or to build social skills.

Social Work

Animals are sometimes used in the foster care system as a means of helping children build a relationship with their social worker, as animals can help them drop their guard and feel comforted during a stressful transition surrounded by people they don’t know.

Occupational Therapy

An essential trait of successful occupational therapists is the ability to determine what motivates the client. For many patients, pet ownership or animal care is very emotionally fulfilling and motivating. The ability to be flexible with patient treatment plans is often touted as a core benefit of a career in occupational therapy, and being able to leverage animal-assisted therapy can provide a way to make therapy satisfying for the OT as well as effective for the patient.


Animal-assisted therapy is not only used in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, but also in some prisoner rehabilitation programs. Caring for an animal can help someone build healthy habits and redirect their energy into productive pursuits. Furthermore, working with animals can provide comfort during the adjustment process.


Animals can help comfort children in stressful situations and build healthy habits and social skills. For example, animal-assisted therapy can help children with ASD, children who are going through dental work or surgery, or children who are in the foster care system.

Senior Care

Animal-assisted therapy can provide elderly patients with emotional comfort and companionship, and can also provide them with a hobby.

What Are Animal-Assisted Activities?

Animal-assisted activities (AAA) are the inclusion of animals in social, recreational, or educational environments to supplement the goals of the activity. This is done due to the calming and motivational effects that animals can have on the individuals involved. An example of animal-assisted activities would be the temporary or long-term allowance of dogs in schools or the workplace in order to boost morale.

Animal-Assisted Therapy vs. Animal-Assisted Activities

Animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities are so similar that the terms are often used interchangeably. However, animal-assisted activities are less structured than animal-assisted therapy, with less specific therapeutic goals. They are also less likely to be led by health professionals. Furthermore, animal-assisted activities are even more adaptable in terms of what types of animals may be employed, whereas animal-assisted therapy is a bit more likely to employ the assistance of more highly-trained therapy animals.

What Is Animal-Assisted Education?

Animal-assisted education is a type of animal-assisted intervention that is based on specific academic and development goals. These are usually very structured and conducted by an educational professional. Animal-assisted education can be used in many different educational environments for any age group. In addition to complementing general academic pursuits, animal-assisted education may also be used to improve social, behavioral, and cognitive functions.

For example, animal-assisted education could be used to help children learn responsibility and empathy by caring for a class pet, or it could be used to develop the social skills of an individual with ASD. The educational professional in charge of these pursuits would set specific goals for the animal-assisted education, and measure progress over time.

Ethical Concerns

While animal-assisted interventions can be very valuable, they are not without ethical concerns. Most notably is the concern that animals can be used as tools without concern for their own well-being. For example, a situation where animals are kept in poor living conditions, are allowed to be mishandled by people, or whose needs are otherwise not being met while being used in animal-assisted interventions may be experiencing that abuse as a direct result of being involved in the program. Therefore, it is incredibly important to consider the animal’s wellbeing when implementing animal-assisted interventions or choosing a program with which to get involved.


There are many options that can simulate the benefits of animal-assisted interventions in various ways. Notable options may be gardening, volunteer work, or even the use of robotic animals.

Additional Resources

  • Pet Partners: Pet Partners is a nonprofit organization that registers service animals, brings service animals to visit people in need, and provides educational resources.
  • Therapet: Therapet connects people with trained volunteers and animals, and provides educational resources.
  • Animals & Society Institute: This is a comprehensive list of animal-assisted therapy programs.
  • Animal Assisted Intervention International: Animal Assisted Intervention International offers opportunities for animal-assisted interventions, and offers educational seminars.
  • Canine Therapy Corps: Canine Therapy Corps offers volunteer animal-assisted intervention services.
  • Alliance of Therapy Dogs: Alliance of Therapy Dogs offers volunteer animal-assisted intervention services.
  • American Kennel Club: The American Kennel Club can certify therapy dogs.

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