Therapy Animal Services

Therapy Animal Services 

I can’t even begin to share with you the many incredible stories about the value of animals providing therapy services. In healthcare, the history of recognizing the therapeutic potential of animals goes way back to the 1800s when Florence Nightingale recognized that the use of small pets helped reduce anxiety in adults and children living in mental institutions. In the 1930s, during his psychotherapy sessions, Sigmond Freud began using his dog, Jofi, in his counseling sessions. The first formal therapeutic work and research was documented in 1961 by Dr. Boris Levinson, a child psychotherapist. He made an ‘accidental discovery’ involving his dog, Jingles, left alone with a child who was mentally impaired and withdrawn and returned to find the child interacting with his dog. 

Animal Assisted Activities and Animal Assisted Therapy

Before we delve further, it is important to clarify a few terms. Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) involve animal visits for educational, motivational, or recreational purposes. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic intervention incorporating animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and even dolphins, into the treatment plan to provide individuals with physical, emotional, and psychological benefits. Both fall under the general term of Animal-Assisted Interventions. 

Therapy animals and Service Animals

Therapy animals are not service animals, as they have very different roles. Service animals, commonly seen using dogs, are specifically trained to work or perform tasks for individuals with disabilities, and federal and local state laws protect them in all housing and public places. There are various types of services they can provide for an individual, such as mobility, vision or hearing impairment, seizure detection, autism, diabetic detection, and PTSD. Emotional support animals are not recognized by the government as service animals. Likewise, therapy animals are not legally defined by federal and state laws. They are typically a person’s pet trained and certified to provide comfort or therapeutic purposes.  Another way of putting it is that a service animal is trained to work with one person, whereas a therapy animal is trained and certified to work with many. 

Read more: Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Science-based Animal Assisted Therapy

There is a wealth of scientific evidence supporting the therapeutic effects of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) on our physical and mental health. Numerous studies have shown that AAT can provide significant benefits for the body and mind. For instance, a recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that interacting with animals in therapy sessions significantly decreased participants’ blood pressure and heart rate, positively impacting cardiovascular health (Maujean et al., 2020). Another study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research demonstrated that engaging with therapy animals increased the level of oxytocin, a hormone associated with stress reduction, pain reduction, and improved immune function (Odendaal & Meintjes, 2003). Additionally, research conducted at the University of California, Davis, indicated that AAT improved motor skills and coordination in individuals undergoing rehabilitation, demonstrating the benefits of physical rehabilitation (Linder, 2017). Patients’ motor skills and coordination can improve through walking, grooming, playing, or reaching out to pet the therapy animals. An example is equestrian therapy, where therapy horses are used for physical, neurological, and social rehabilitation. 

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The Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy

In other settings, AAT has been shown to enhance learning experiences by increasing motivation, attention, and engagement. Children and adolescents may feel more comfortable and secure when animals are integrated into therapy or educational activities. It can serve as a conversation starter and a source of common ground for individuals who may be hesitant to engage in traditional forms of therapy. The presence of an animal can help individuals feel more at ease and open up to conversation, trust, and rapport-building with therapists and other participants. AAT has been used in many other settings, such as courtrooms, counseling offices, correctional facilities, trauma, and crisis interventions. 

AAT does not just involve dogs, cats, or horses; other animals that have been used include hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, goats, reptiles, and birds. Using the appropriate animals in therapy can offer a holistic approach to healing and well-being, addressing emotional, physical, and social needs. The unconditional and non-judgmental bond between humans and animals forms the foundation of animal-assisted therapy, making it a valuable and effective treatment option for many individuals. 

CareerSmart® Learning knows the value of a well-supported, well-educated, well-prepared healthcare workforce. We maintain various accreditations by professional licensing and certification organizations and offer CE or contact hours to Nurses, Certified Case Managers, Certified Rehabilitation Counselors, Certified Disability Management Specialists, and Social Workers nationwide.

Angie Jung, RN, BSN, CRRN, CCM, Chief Education Liaison

About the Author: Angie Jung has two nationally and locally certified therapy dogs and volunteers weekly to various organizations providing therapeutic support. 


Fung, Allison. Journal of Alternative, Complementary & Integrative Medicine. The Rich History and Evolution of Animal-Assisted Therapy. Jan. 24, 2024. 

Maujean, A., Pepping, C. A., & Kendall, E. (2020). A systematic review of randomized controlled trials of animal-assisted therapy on psychosocial outcomes. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(12), 4628.  

Odendaal, J. S., & Meintjes, R. A. (2003). Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs. The Veterinary Journal, 165(3), 296-301.  

Linder, D. E., Siebens, H. C., Mueller, M. K., Gibbs, S. G., & Freeman, L. M. (2017). Animal-assisted intervention: A prescription for cardiovascular health. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 235-245. 

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