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What Is Animal Assisted Therapy & How It Works?

July 28, 2023

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic approach that involves animals as an integral part of the healing process. In recent years, it has gained popularity for its effectiveness in enhancing well-being and improving mental and physical health.

Whether you are a mental health professional, an animal lover, or simply curious about this fascinating subject, this article will provide you with valuable insights and information.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Animal Assisted Therapy is a form of therapeutic intervention that harnesses the unique bond between humans and animals. Specifically trained animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and even dolphins, assist therapists in providing support and comfort to individuals with various health challenges.

At the heart of Animal Assisted Therapy lies the undeniable power of animal companionship. Animals have a remarkable ability to connect with humans on an emotional level, offering unconditional love and non-judgmental support. This connection can be particularly beneficial for individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, or trauma.

Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) offers numerous benefits that contribute to improved mental, emotional, and physical well-being. 

This therapeutic approach, which involves specially trained animals, has gained recognition for its positive impact on individuals facing various health challenges. 

Let’s explore some of the key benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy:

  1. Stress Reduction: Interacting with animals has been proven to be an effective stress reliever. Spending time with therapy animals and engaging in activities like petting or grooming can trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with relaxation and bonding. As a result, individuals often experience reduced stress and anxiety levels.
  2. Improved Mood and Emotional Wellbeing: The presence of animals can profoundly impact emotional health. Therapy animals offer unconditional love, companionship, and non-judgmental support, which can significantly uplift mood and alleviate feelings of loneliness or isolation. The positive interactions with animals can also lead to the release of endorphins, the body’s natural mood enhancers.
  3. Enhanced Social Skills: Animal Assisted Therapy can be particularly beneficial for individuals with social difficulties or communication challenges. Animals create a non-threatening environment, encouraging patients to open up and improve their social interactions and communication skills.
  4. Physical Health Benefits: Engaging with therapy animals can have physical health benefits as well. For instance, activities like walking or playing with dogs can promote physical activity and help improve cardiovascular health. Additionally, the rhythmic motion of petting animals can enhance motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
  5. Reduced Perception of Pain: It has been observed that interactions with animals can reduce the perception of pain and discomfort in patients. The distraction and emotional support provided by therapy animals can help individuals cope better with physical pain during medical treatments.
  6. Increased Motivation for Therapy: Incorporating animals into therapy sessions can increase motivation and participation in treatment. The presence of animals often makes the therapy environment more enjoyable and engaging, encouraging patients to actively take part in their healing process.
  7. Strengthened Trust and Empathy: Building a connection with animals can lead to the development of trust and empathy. This newfound emotional connection can extend beyond the therapy sessions and positively impact an individual’s relationships with others.
  8. Improved Quality of Life: Animal Assisted Therapy can contribute to an overall improvement in the quality of life for individuals dealing with chronic illnesses or mental health conditions. The emotional support and sense of purpose provided by therapy animals can enhance one’s overall well-being.
  9. Reduced Feelings of Depression: Regular interactions with therapy animals have been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and promote feelings of happiness and contentment.
  10. Support in Various Settings: Animal Assisted Therapy is highly versatile and can be utilized in various settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and mental health centers. Its adaptability makes it a valuable resource for enhancing well-being across different age groups and conditions.

The Role of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) in Various Settings

Let’s explore the essential roles of animals in different settings where Animal Assisted Therapy is utilized:

  1. Hospitals: In hospitals, therapy animals visit patients to provide comfort and emotional support during their stay. These visits can help alleviate anxiety and stress, making the hospital environment more welcoming and calming for patients. Interacting with therapy animals can also positively impact patient mood and overall satisfaction with their medical care.
  2. Schools and Educational Institutions: Animal Assisted Therapy has found its way into educational settings, where it serves as a valuable resource for students’ emotional well-being. Therapy animals can help reduce stress and anxiety among students, especially during challenging academic periods. Additionally, their presence in schools can create a positive and supportive atmosphere, contributing to improved concentration and focus in the learning environment.
  3. Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities: Residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities often experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. Animal Assisted Therapy offers a remedy for these emotions by providing companionship and unconditional love. The presence of therapy animals can uplift spirits and bring joy to the elderly, making their living environment more enjoyable.
  4. Mental Health Centers: In mental health centers, animals play an integral role in individual and group therapy sessions. Their calming presence can create a safe space for patients to open up and express themselves. Therapy animals can also serve as a bridge to establish trust and rapport between patients and therapists, facilitating more effective therapeutic interventions.
  5. Rehabilitation Centers: In rehabilitation centers, animal-assisted activities can aid in physical therapy and recovery. For instance, therapy dogs can encourage patients to engage in exercises and movements by providing motivation and support. Additionally, the presence of animals can help individuals undergoing rehabilitation to feel more positive and determined throughout their recovery process.
  6. Veterans’ Programs: Therapy animals have been integrated into programs designed to support veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health challenges. The calming effect of these animals can help veterans cope with their emotional struggles and foster a sense of companionship.
  7. Home Care Settings: Animal Assisted Therapy can extend to home care settings, where therapy animals provide emotional support and companionship to individuals with chronic illnesses or disabilities. Their presence can significantly improve the overall quality of life for homebound individuals.

How does Animal Assisted Therapy work? 

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) operates on the foundation of the solid and unique bond between humans and animals. 

Here’s how Animal Assisted Therapy works:

  1. Assessment and Planning: The process begins with a thorough assessment of the individual’s needs and goals. A qualified healthcare professional, such as a therapist, counselor, or healthcare provider, evaluates the patient’s condition to determine whether Animal Assisted Therapy is suitable and beneficial for their specific situation.
  2. Selection of Therapy Animals: Once it is established that AAT is appropriate, the next step involves selecting suitable therapy animals for the individual’s needs. Different animals have different temperaments and abilities, so the selection process is tailored to match the patient’s preferences, therapeutic goals, and any potential allergies or fears.
  3. Animal Training and Certification: Therapy animals used in AAT undergo specialized training to develop the skills necessary for therapeutic interactions. Training focuses on obedience, calm demeanor, and sensitivity to human emotions. Animals that pass the training are typically certified as therapy animals, ensuring they meet the necessary standards for engaging in therapeutic work.
  4. Emotional Support and Comfort: The mere presence of therapy animals can offer emotional support and comfort to patients. Interacting with animals, such as petting, stroking, or playing, can evoke positive emotions, reduce stress, and create a sense of calm and relaxation.
  5. Encouragement of Social Interaction: Therapy animals can act as “ice-breakers” in social situations, encouraging patients to communicate and interact. This is particularly beneficial for individuals with social difficulties or communication challenges.
  6. Physical Engagement: In some cases, therapy animals may be involved in physical activities that promote movement and motor skills development. For instance, walking a therapy dog can help individuals with physical disabilities or those in rehabilitation.
  7. Observation and Assessment: Throughout the therapy sessions, the healthcare professional closely observes the patient’s responses to the therapy animals. The professional assesses the emotional and behavioral changes, as well as any progress made toward the therapeutic goals.
  8. Collaboration with Healthcare Team: The healthcare professional coordinating the AAT often collaborates with other members of the healthcare team to ensure comprehensive care. The therapy animals’ involvement complements traditional therapeutic approaches and contributes to the patient’s overall treatment plan.


Animal Assisted Therapy is a remarkable approach that leverages the power of the human-animal bond to promote healing and well-being. From reducing stress and anxiety to improving emotional and physical health, the benefits of AAT are wide-ranging. 

Its adaptability to various healthcare settings makes it a valuable and effective therapeutic option. As the popularity of Animal Assisted Therapy continues to grow, more individuals will have the opportunity to experience the profound positive impact of these furry companions on their lives.

Through carefully planned interventions and the support of specially trained animals, AAT provides a unique and valuable therapeutic experience for individuals across various healthcare settings.

FAQs on Animal Assisted Therapy

Q: Is Animal Assisted Therapy suitable for all individuals?

A: While Animal Assisted Therapy can be highly beneficial for many individuals, it may not be suitable for those with severe allergies to animal dander or fear of animals.

Q: Can any animal be used in Animal Assisted Therapy?

A: Not all animals are suitable for AAT. Therapy animals undergo specific training and are selected based on their temperament and ability to interact with humans calmly.

Q: How long does an Animal Assisted Therapy session last?

A: The duration of a therapy session can vary depending on the client’s needs and goals, but it typically lasts between 30 minutes to an hour.

Q: What mental health conditions can Animal Assisted Therapy help with?

A: Animal Assisted Therapy can assist in treating a wide range of conditions, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, autism spectrum disorders, and more.

Q: Are there any risks associated with Animal Assisted Therapy?

A: While AAT is generally considered safe, there may be some risks, such as allergies or accidental injuries. Trained professionals take measures to minimize these risks.

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