What Is Animal Therapy?

Pet Therapy, Animal-Assisted Therapy, Pet-Assisted Therapy

Animal therapy is the use of animals to help with physical, social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. This is sometimes also called pet therapy, animal-assisted therapy, or pet-assisted therapy. This article will explain animal therapy, the conditions that can be treated, processes, who facilitates it, types, and more.

An animal therapy dog

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Animal therapy is any type of therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals. This may include support with physical, social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. It can be used alone or as part of a treatment plan with other interventions.

These animals are specifically trained to provide affection and comfort. They are often confused with service animals and emotional support animals, but all three are different.

The primary difference between therapy animals and service animals is that therapy animals provide emotional support while service animals provide assistance to people with disabilities by performing specific tasks. For example, a service animal may help a blind person navigate their surroundings or alert someone with epilepsy that they are about to have a seizure.

Emotional support animals are similar to therapy animals in that they both provide emotional support. However, a therapy animal works with many people while a emotional support animal only works with their owner. Additionally, emotional support animals do not have special training.

Conditions Treated

Therapy animals support people with emotional and mental health challenges. They may also support people with physical health conditions in coping with the emotional and mental components of those conditions. There has also been some research showing the effectiveness of therapy animals improving physical health conditions. For example, animal-assisted therapy can be used to reduce blood pressure and pain levels.

Therapy animals can be used in the care of the following conditions:

Who Provides Animal Therapy?

Animal handlers and their trained animals provide animal therapy. These services may be provided in various ways. Therapy animals may visit people in hospitals, schools, rehabilitation facilities, care facilities, nursing homes, hospice care facilities. However, they do not have the same legal status as service dogs and may not be permitted to enter some facilities.

Some healthcare offices, such as psychologist or therapist offices, may have therapy animals to bring in to assist with appointments. There are also designated therapy animal facilities for people to go specifically for animal-assisted therapy. For example, horses are not able to visit patients in hospitals, but there are stables with therapy horses and programs for people to interact with the horses as therapy.

Processes and Situations

The process of animal therapy depends on the person receiving the therapy, their unique situation and needs, and the availability of therapy animals and handlers.

If a therapy animal visits a healthcare facility, a person interested in visiting with the animal may tell a caretaker they are interested, or a caretaker may ask if they are interested. The handler may then bring the animal to the patient for a visit. Depending on the animal and comfort level, the patient may pet or hold the animal.

Therapy In a School Setting

The process may be similar to this in a school setting. To take part in animal therapy at a designated animal therapy facility, the process may involve a specific program or lesson to learn how to interact with the animal. For example, a person may learn how to care for or ride a therapy horse.

Talk to your school administration to determine if in-school services can be provided in your district.

Types of Animals Used

The most common type of animal used for animal therapy is a dog. However, many other animals make great therapy animals. Technically, any type of animal can be a therapy animal. Some types of animals are used more often because of their compatibility with the services they provide.

Regardless of the species, it is important that therapy animals are well-trained, comfortable with lots of different people, and have a personality that is appropriate for the settings where they work.

Therapy animals may include:

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Horses
  • Birds
  • Rabbits
  • Guinea pigs
  • Small reptiles


Eligibility for animal-assisted therapy depends on the situation and the setting. In the hospital setting, for example, there may be a sanitation concern for some patients who are at an increased risk of infection. Requirements for animals depend on the facility or location as therapy dogs do not have the same legal status as service dogs. Some requirements may include training certification, registration, insurance, or vaccination.

Eligibility for Emotional Support Animals

While there are no eligibility requirements to buy or adopt pets that may provide some of the same benefits, there are eligibility requirements to qualify for emotional support animals to be permitted in places that do not otherwise allow pets, such as apartments.

The person to receive the emotional support animal must have a diagnosis to qualify. A letter from a mental health professional is required. Additionally, the animal must qualify by being able to live in the housing or be in public places without causing disturbances or undue hardship to others.


There are many benefits of animal therapy that go well beyond feelings of comfort and emotional support. Studies have found animal therapy to effectively help people to relax, have breakthroughs in the talk therapy process, lower blood pressure and slow heart rate, regulate hormones, and improve interactions and behaviors, among other things. There are benefits to both mental and physical health that promote healing and overall wellbeing.


Animal therapy is generally considered safe. However, some people may be at an increased risk of harm. For example, people who are afraid of or do not like animals may not be a good fit for animal therapy because the experience could cause additional stress that outweighs the potential benefits.

Additionally, people with compromised immune function should check with their healthcare team prior to trying animal therapy because animals may carry diseases without their handlers being aware of it.


Animal therapy is the use of an animal to provide comfort, emotional support, and therapeutic care to people with a variety of health challenges in different situations. It is often used for mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder, but can also be used for physical conditions and the emotional component of physical disease.

Most therapy animals are dogs, but cats, horses, rabbits, and any species can be used as long as they are well trained and compatible with the services they provide to the people needing the services.

Eligibility depends on the care setting and the condition of the person to receive the therapy. There are many favorable outcomes of animal therapy, including relaxation, talk therapy breakthroughs, relief of symptoms, and overall improved wellbeing.

A Word From Verywell

Animal therapy can be a great way to improve mental and physical health conditions, their symptoms, overall wellbeing, and quality of life. If you or someone you know is struggling to cope with a physical or mental health condition or is going through a hard time emotionally, animal therapy may help.

Talk to a healthcare provider such as a primary care physician, psychologist, or therapist about animal therapy options, or contact a facility that provides animal therapy services to learn more about support with animals.

7 Sources
Verywell Health 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. American Psychological Association. Animal-assisted therapy.

  2. Alliance of Therapy Dogs. What is the difference between a therapy dog vs. a service dog?

  3. UCLA Health. Animal-assisted therapy research.

  4. Helen Woodward Animal Center. Benefits of therapeutic riding.

  5. American Veterinary Medical Association. Service, emotional support, and therapy animals.

  6. Service Dog Certifications. How to qualify for an emotional support animal.

  7. VCA Hospitals. Therapy pets.

By Ashley Olivine, Ph.D., MPH
Dr. Ashley Olivine is a health psychologist and public health professional with over a decade of experience serving clients in the clinical setting and private practice. She has also researched a wide variety psychology and public health topics such as the management of health risk factors, chronic illness, maternal and child wellbeing, and child development.