What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)?

Animals are sometimes part of therapy for mental illness.
Tom Ervin / Getty Images

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:

  • Dogs
  • Horses
  • Cats
  • Dolphins
  • Birds
  • Cows
  • Rabbits
  • Ferrets
  • Guinea pigs

AAT can be structured as individual or group sessions in many different settings, including:

  • Nursing homes
  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Libraries
  • Correctional facilities
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Therapist offices
  • Outdoors

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 dogs
  • Caring for farm animals
  • Grooming companion animals
  • Playing 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:

It may also be helpful for children and adolescents with:

Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

The use of animals during therapy may offer several benefits, such as:

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 outdoors
  • Wear closed-toed shoes
  • Bring 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.

Was this page helpful?
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.
  1. Stewart LA, Chang CY, Rice R. Emergent theory and model of practice in animal-assisted therapy in counseling. J Creat Ment Health. 2013;8(4):329-348. doi:10.1080/15401383.2013.844657

  2. Kamioka H, Okada S, Tsutani K, et al. Effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Complement Ther Med. 2014;22(2):371-390. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2013.12.016

  3. López-Cepero J. Current status of animal-assisted interventions in scientific literature: A critical comment on their internal validity. Animals. 2020;10(6):985. doi:10.3390/ani10060985

  4. ADA National Network. Service animals and emotional support animals. 2014.

  5. London MD, Mackenzie L, Lovarini M, Dickson C, Alvarez-Campos A. Animal assisted therapy for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder: Parent perspectives. J Autism Dev Disord. 2020;50(12):4492-4503. doi:10.1007/s10803-020-04512-5

  6. Geist TS. Conceptual framework for animal assisted therapy. Child Adolesc Soc Work J. 2011;28(3):243. doi:10.1007/s10560-011-0231-3

  7. Wong PWC, Yu RWM, Li TMH, Lai SLH, Ng HYH, Fan WTW. Efficacy of a multicomponent intervention with animal-assisted therapy for socially withdrawn youth in Hong Kong. Soc Anim. 2019;27(5-6):614-627. doi:10.1163/15685306-12341462

  8. Maujean A, Pepping CA, Kendall E. A systematic review of randomized controlled trials of animal-assisted therapy on psychosocial outcomes. Anthrozoös. 2015;28(1):23-36. doi:10.2752/089279315X14129350721812

  9. Hunt MG, Chizkov RR. Are therapy dogs like Xanax? Does animal-assisted therapy impact processes relevant to cognitive behavioral psychotherapy?. Anthrozoös. 2014;27(3):457-469. doi:10.2752/175303714X14023922797959

  10. Spattini L, Mattei G, Raisi F, Ferrari S, Pingani L, Galeazzi GM. Efficacy of animal assisted therapy on people with mental disorders: An update on the evidence. Minerva Psichiatr. 2018 March;59(1):54-66. doi: 10.23736/S0391-1772.17.01958-6