Animal-Assisted Therapy: Overview and Effectiveness

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Animal-Assisted Therapy: Overview and Effectiveness

THC Editorial Team December 11, 2020
Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom, 1834, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington (article on animal-assisted therapy)
Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom, 1834, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington


What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a goal-directed form of therapy in which trained animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and birds are incorporated into people’s healing or mental health treatment processes. AAT uses human–animal connections to improve the mental health of individuals.

Through evolution, certain human–animal bonds have become powerful, mutually beneficial forces that improve the well-being of both people and animals. For example, the domestication of cats and dogs has resulted in mutualistic relationships in which cats and dogs benefit by being cared for, groomed, and fed while humans benefit by having an affectionate companion.

The premise of AAT is that these invisible ties may profoundly impact the lives and health of individuals when they are bolstered through practices that foster healthy relationships and establish trust between therapy animals and human clients.

AAT uses human–animal connections to improve the mental health of individuals.

Conditions Commonly Treated by Animal-Assisted Therapy

Individuals of any age can participate in AAT. It is particularly beneficial for people who deal with the following conditions:

Potential Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

According to scientific research, AAT can improve the following:

  • physiological and psychological responses to stress5
  • communication and social integration5
  • emotional availability in children5
  • mood3
  • self-esteem/self-efficacy3
  • quality of life3
  • symptoms of schizophrenia and/or serious mental disorders3
  • immune function6
  • self-care6
  • life satisfaction6
  • focus6
  • emotional well-being2

According to scientific research, AAT can reduce the following:

  • feelings of isolation and loneliness5
  • stress as indicated by decreased cortisol levels5
  • trauma symptoms1
  • anxiety3
  • depression6
  • self-reported physical and emotional pain6
  • autism-spectrum symptoms2
  • medical difficulties2
  • behavioral problems2

How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work?

Within AAT, animals are extensively trained to be patient with humans and to recognize human displays of fear, anger, sadness, discomfort, and other emotions. The animals are then taught to imitate these emotions and therefore offer clients a type of mirror to encourage self-awareness. In addition, animals are trained to understand human emotions in order to react to what individuals feel and display in ways that comfort clients.

Unlike animal-assisted activities (AAAs) and animal-assisted interactions (AAIs), AAT is conducted by a licensed therapist or practitioner who sets specific goals and objectives for the client.4

Depending on the specific animal involved, AAT may be held in a variety of places.5 In addition to medical settings, it can take place in nursing homes, prisons, universities, homeless shelters, and other places where the need for stress relief is endemic. It can occur as individual or group therapy, or it can be combined with other therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.2 In general, clients usually determine the duration of AAT; they can choose to participate in AAT for a few weeks or even for several months.2

The three most common forms of AAT are canine-, feline-, and equine-assisted therapy.

Within AAT, animals are extensively trained to be patient with humans and to recognize human displays of fear, anger, sadness, discomfort, and other emotions.

Canine-Assisted Therapy

In training schools, therapy dogs are obedience trained and are taught to possess calm temperaments and comfort individuals through physical contact.7

During a canine-assisted therapy session, a trained handler will bring the therapy dog to the patient and allow the patient to interact with it.7 Therapists will usually provide handlers with instructions and guidance to ensure that patients interact with therapy dogs in ways that help patients achieve their goals. A therapist or practitioner does not have to be present during the session.

Feline-Assisted Therapy

Feline-assisted therapy can take place either in a therapeutic institution where the cat resides permanently or in a different location where the cat is brought to the patient by a trained therapist.8

The calm presence of cats, their purring, and their soft fur result in psychological benefits for the patient.8

Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy

This form of AAT takes place in an equestrian facility and involves a horse, a therapist, and a handler who specializes in training horses.9

Equine-assisted therapy does not always include riding the horse; instead, it might consist of performing ground exercises with the animal, grooming it, or feeding it.

Horses are similar to humans in some of their behavioral responses and social structures, which provides the patient with a mirror to gain insight in a unique and nonthreatening environment.9

Effectiveness of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Multiple studies have demonstrated that individuals of all ages benefit from AAT. One study involving 30 adult patients with schizophrenia showed significant improvements in both self-esteem and self-determination after 2 months of weekly 50-minute canine-assisted therapy sessions.3

Another study involving 24 patients with chronic schizophrenia who participated in canine-assisted therapy demonstrated significant improvements in social contact, positive and negative schizophrenia symptoms, and quality of life in terms of social relationships.3

A study of 40 older adults in a rehabilitation unit showed that only 10 days of bird-assisted therapy resulted in a significant decrease in depression.3

Additionally, a study of 28 adults with clinical depression who participated in AAT demonstrated a significant decline in depression and a significant increase in self-efficacy.

Finally, a meta-analysis of eight studies with participants between 8 and 62 years of age with PTSD who had suffered various traumas showed that AAT resulted in significant improvements in measures of trauma, depression, and anxiety.1

The results from these and numerous other studies are promising and indicate the need for further research on AAT and its various forms. As more studies are conducted and demonstrate its efficacy, this form of therapy can be further incorporated in psychotherapy.


  1. Germain, S. M., Wilkie, K. D., Milbourne, V. M. K., & Theule, J. (2018). Animal-assisted psychotherapy and trauma: A meta-analysis. Anthrozoös, 31(2), 141–164.
  2. Nimer, J., & Lundahl, B. (2007). Animal-assisted therapy: A meta-analysis. Anthrozoös, 20(3), 225–238.
  3. Kamioka, H., Okada, S., Tsutani, K., Park, H., Okuizumi, H., Handa, S., Oshio, T., Park, S. J., Kitayuguchi, J., Abe, T., Honda, T., & Mutoh, Y. (2014). Effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Complementary therapies in medicine, 22(2), 371–390.
  4. Mims, D., & Waddell, R. (2016). Animal assisted therapy and trauma survivors. Journal of evidence-informed social work, 13(5), 452–457.
  5. Cirulli, F., Borgi, M., Berry, A., Francia, N., & Alleva, E. (2011). Animal-assisted interventions as innovative tools for mental health. Annali dell'Istituto superiore di sanita, 47(4), 341–348.
  6. Morrison, M. (2007). Health benefits of animal-assisted interventions. Complementary Health Practice Review. 12. 51–62.
  7. Krause-Parello, C. A., Sarni, S., & Padden, E. (2016). Military veterans and canine assistance for post-traumatic stress disorder: A narrative review of the literature. Nurse Education Today, 47, 43–50.
  8. Tomaszewska, K., Bomert, I., & Wilkiewicz-Wawro, E. (2017). Feline-assisted therapy: Integrating contact with cats into treatment plans. Polish Annals of Medicine, 24(2), 283–286.
  9. Schultz, P. N., Remick-Barlow, G. A., & Robbins, L. (2007). Equine-assisted psychotherapy: A mental health promotion/intervention modality for children who have experienced intra-family violence. Health & Social Care in the Community, 15(3), 265–271.

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