Social Anxiety Disorder Treatment and Therapy What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)? By Arlin Cuncic Arlin Cuncic Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." Learn about our editorial process Updated on July 09, 2021 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Carly Snyder, MD Medically reviewed by Carly Snyder, MD Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Carly Snyder, MD is a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist who combines traditional psychiatry with integrative medicine-based treatments. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Tom Ervin / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents Definition Types Techniques Uses Benefits Effectiveness Things to Consider How to Get Started What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy? Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a form of therapy that includes animals in the treatment process. AAT is goal-directed and involves a therapist who guides the interaction between the animal and client. AAT relies on the unique bond between humans and animals, specifically animals with the right temperament and training for therapy. This therapeutic approach may allow people undergoing therapy to feel more comfortable, safe, and supported as they seek treatment for a mental health condition. Types of Animal-Assisted Therapy AAT involves working with a therapist and a trained therapy animal. Many different types of animals may be used in AAT, including: DogsHorsesCatsDolphinsBirdsCowsRabbitsFerretsGuinea pigs AAT can be structured as individual or group sessions in many different settings, including: Nursing homesHospitalsSchoolsLibrariesCorrectional facilitiesRehabilitation centersTherapist officesOutdoors Certain animal-assisted activities may also be considered a form of AAT—though there is some disagreement among mental healthcare professionals on this terminology. These activities still include animals, but they may not have the same type of training as those used in AAT. Some examples of animal-assisted activities include: Learning how to train dogsCaring for farm animalsGrooming companion animalsPlaying with pets Therapy Animals vs. Service Animals Animals who assist with therapy are not the same as psychiatric service animals. Service animals live with individuals with psychological disorders and other disabilities to help them with activities of daily living, such as remembering to take medication or learning to identify the signs of an impending anxiety attack. Service animals fall under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Emotional support animals also differ from those used in AAT. Emotional support animals are pets that provide individual companionship to their owners. They don't require specialized training and they're not covered under the ADA. Techniques AAT does not follow one specific mode of treatment. For example, animals may be included in everything from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to psychodynamic treatment. The animal is there to assist in the therapeutic process, not to drive the therapy. The techniques used during AAT will vary depending on the therapist's methods and the animals used. Equine therapy, for example, is often a structured practice where you learn to ride and care for horses, while a therapy dog may simply be present during a session to offer you comfort. An AAT therapist generally has a close relationship with the therapy animal and has a specific role in mind for the animal to play. That role could be: Helping you to feel safer and more comfortable during therapy Keeping you grounded in the present moment Offering opportunities for physical touch and comfort, which a therapist cannot provide Acting as a bridge between you and the therapist, making it easier to build a healthy therapeutic rapport Providing you with unconditional, nonjudgmental affection Giving you a way to practice communication and social skills Improving interactions between members of group therapy Providing your therapist with clues about your emotional state What AAT Can Help With AAT may be used during treatment for people with a number of mental health conditions, including: Anxiety Depression Schizophrenia Substance use Trauma It may also be helpful for children and adolescents with: Autism Problems regulating their emotions and behavior Social withdrawal Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy The use of animals during therapy may offer several benefits, such as: Increased feelings of self-efficacy and improved self-esteem Lower levels of anxiety and depression Improved social and relationship skills Better quality of life Reduced distress levels while processing traumatic emotions Effectiveness While we have plenty of anecdotal information and case studies in support of AAT, not much long-term research has been conducted. More rigorous controlled studies are needed to determine the best methods for applying AAT for maximum benefit. Some evidence does suggest that AAT is effective at improving empathy, communication, and socialization, and it may be particularly helpful for people who tend to have problems sticking with therapy. These benefits seem to be long-lasting and are generally well-received. Things to Consider If any of the following applies in your situation, then AAT may not be the right fit: You have a strong fear of animals; even a dislike of animals would pose problems with AAT. You are allergic to certain types of animals. You have reduced immunity due to HIV or AIDS, chemotherapy or radiation for cancer, or any immune-suppressive medications. Contact your doctor if any of these situations apply. Animals participating in AAT should be up-to-date on vaccinations and in good health, and they should undergo regular veterinary care. They should also have a friendly, gentle disposition, and the therapist should be skilled at handling them. Both you and the animal should be safe at all times during the therapy process. AAT may not be covered by insurance. Be sure to check with your provider before working with an AAT therapist. How to Get Started If you're interested in beginning AAT, consult with your doctor to see if they have any recommendations for a therapist near you. Keep in mind that you may need to travel to the site where the animals work rather than having them come to you. When you're choosing your therapist, look for someone who is credentialed and licensed and has experience in AAT. You should also feel comfortable with their therapeutic approach and with the way they use animals in their practice. Ahead of your first appointment, you should take preparations to be sure that you're comfortable during your session. Depending on the type of AAT and the activities your therapist has planned, you may need to: Dress in clothing that's appropriate for the outdoorsWear closed-toed shoesBring along sun protection and water During your first appointment, your therapist may ask questions about your symptoms and reasons for seeking therapy. They may also discuss your goals and go over your treatment plan. They may also share guidelines for working with the therapy animals, including any safety procedures or equipment that you'll need to use during the process. This is also your chance to ask questions and get comfortable with your therapist and with the animals that will play a role in your treatment. Here's How to Find the Right Therapist for You 10 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. 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Minerva Psichiatr. 2018 March;59(1):54-66. doi: 10.23736/S0391-1772.17.01958-6 By Arlin Cuncic Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for Social Anxiety Disorder Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.