What Is Animal Assisted Therapy

Even if you don’t actively think about it, animals are an essential part of the human experience. We use them for manual power (think sled dogs and horse carriages). Humans also use animals for entertainment, companionship, and even their byproducts. 

As vital as animals are to our everyday lives, there is one application that’s becoming increasingly common. Psychologists and therapists alike have acknowledged their usefulness in certain therapy programs. 

Animals have distinct qualities that make them great at helping with the rehabilitation process for various kinds of patients. Learn more about Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and how it can benefit you or a loved one. 

What is Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is the use of dogs, cats, horses or other pets as therapeutic modalities. They help patients with both acute and chronic diseases undergo healing and rehabilitation. 

AAT is meant to improve any combination of human cognitive, physical, emotional, and social functioning. It’s offered in a variety of settings including hospitals, rehab centers, and mental health institutions. Individuals can undergo AAT by themselves or in a group. 

To better understand this practice, it’s important to distinguish it from AAA. 

The Difference Between AAT and AAA

AAT is often confused with an Animal Assisted Activities (AAA). With AAT, a health professional will identify specific objectives and goals for a patient to meet. He or she will measure a patient’s progress along the way.

On the other hand, AAA involves owners bringing certified therapy animals to facilities on a random basis. AAA is not considered true AAT. Rather, it falls under the term “Visitation.” 

Even though AAA is not a measurable treatment method, it can still be effective when treating folks in nursing homes, elderly patients in hospice care, and children with terminal illnesses.

Studies have shown that either Animal Assisted Interventions can:

  • Lower an elevated heart rate
  • Reduce high blood pressure
  • Reduce anxiety levels

You can think of AAA as more of a casual “meet-and-greet” type of occurrence. These kinds of visits are spontaneous. They can last as short or long as the owners decide. The owners can be trained professionals or paraprofessionals. In a lot of cases, they are often volunteers with no proper training or licensure. 

Unlike AAA, AAT is a program that’s documented and evaluated to improve a patient’s condition. It’s delivered or directed by a professional in either human or health services. This individual possesses specialized expertise within his or her profession. 

The History of Animal Assisted Therapy

Even though Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has gained a lot of traction in the last few years, it is by no means a new practice. 

The history of Animal Assisted Therapy is a little muddled. This is because it goes back so far. Animals were used on an informal basis to treat medical conditions for hundreds of years. There is no exact date that points to its origins. However, historians have a general idea. 

Animal Assisted Therapy dates as far back to the Ancient Greeks in 1100 BCE. These individuals used horses to raise the spirits of patients who were injured or ill. 

Since then, there have been many cases of people using horses to treat certain conditions. In 17th-century Europe, it was quite common for physicians to use horses to improve their patients’ mental and physical health. 

Pets were first officially used for therapeutic use in medieval Belgium. During this period, pets and humans were often rehabilitated together. This offered humans the companionship they needed to overcome certain mental abnormalities.

In the 1800s, Florence Nightingale noted the positive effects that small pets can inflict on adult and youth psychiatric patients. Her observations set the stage for a series of informal experiments to follow.

In the late 1800s, famous neurologist Sigmund Freud used his pet dog during therapy sessions to calm younger patients with anxiety. 

In the 1940s, the American Red Cross had veterans work with farm animals. These veterans, who were suffering from either illness or injury, were given the task of caring for different farm animals. This kind of responsibility created mutually beneficial relationships that allowed the veterans to focus on something other than their traumas. 

The first formal research about animal therapy began in the 1960s. Dr. Boris Levinson used his therapy dog Jingles to help his young patients become more comfortable with socializing. For a while, Levinson’s findings were not considered valid. Once Freud’s findings were published after his death, Levinson’s claims about the benefits of therapy animals became revered. 

He went on to publish a book in 1969 called “Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy.” Through this book, Levinson established himself as the founder of Animal Assisted Therapy. 

In the late 1970s, Michael McCulloch and Leo Bustad built upon Levinson’s findings. They coined the idea of the “human-animal bond,” which was inspired by the concept of the “parent-infant bond.” McCulloch and Bustad’s version explored the relationship between people and animals. They detailed how each one acts differently in the absence of the other. 

About a decade later in 1989, the Delta Society established standards for pets providing AAT. Though more certifications have come about since then, the foundation that the Delta Society made still exists today. 

How Animal Assisted Therapy Works

To participate in AAT, a therapy animal must be certified through a valid organization. There are various organizations available for different kinds of pets. For example, most therapy dogs are certified through the American Kennel Club (AKC). 

Any breed, size, or species can become a therapy dog or another animal. However, the pet must be at least one year old and be gentle and affectionate around humans and other animals. 

Once an animal has gone through the certification process, an owner can use it as a therapy pet. 

Before any Animal Assisted Therapy begins, a qualified health professional will evaluate their patient. During this evaluation, they will determine their patient’s current state and potential areas of improvement. 

To best track a patient’s progress, the health professional will put goals and objectives in place.

Once therapy begins, the animal will interact with the patient under the supervision of a health professional. During this interaction, a patient may experience physical benefits like reduced blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health, and feelings of calmness. 

During a therapy session, an animal can also help:

  • Improve independent movement
  • Improve motor skills and joint movement
  • Improve the relationship between a patient and a healthcare provider
  • Develop verbal communication
  • Motivate a patient to exercise or participate in other activity
  • Minimize feelings of anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and isolation
  • Develop feelings of empathy
    Practice nurturing skills

Animal Assisted Therapy programs target measurable problems. For example, a health professional may track a patient’s heart rate before and after AAT. He or she may also compare a patient’s participation rate in a group setting before and after AAT.

Some examples of AAT in action include:

  • A child with Cerebral Palsy (CP) can increase his or her flexibility, balance, and strength by riding a therapy horse. 
  • A young woman who’s enduring trauma can talk to her therapist about her history of sexual abuse while petting a therapy dog or cat.
  • A child with a learning disability can focus on improving his or her literacy while being relaxed by a therapy dog’s presence. 

AAT is an ongoing process that may require adjustments along the way. In any case, it’s an effective way to improve a patient’s physical and mental health. 

Who Can Benefit from AAT

Individuals of various ages and conditions can benefit from AAT. Some common conditions that Animal Assisted Therapy can help with include:

  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Substance addiction
  • Cognitive decline
  • Memory impairment
  • Psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia
  • Emotional and behavioral disorders

While AAT is not a cure for physical conditions, trained pets can help patients manage the side effects. For example, a therapy dog can help cancer patients manage the stress of chemotherapy. It can also help elderly patients improve their dexterity and motor skills. 


The history of AAT is detailed, and it is a rapidly-evolving field. Therapists and other health professionals have come to rely on it as a treatment in combination with other methods.

Some individuals may not be ready to become part of an AAT program. This doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from having an emotional support pet. Simply being in the presence of this kind of animal can provide significant therapeutic benefits. 

If you have any further questions or want to seek ESA registration, contact our professionals at ESA Registration today.