Animal therapy derives from the history of humans and animals sharing a unique bond. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, humans and animals mutually benefit from spending time with each other. This human-animal bond theory says that humans and animals experience emotional, psychological, and physical benefits to their well-being.1
What is animal therapy?
Animal therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, is a structured and goal-oriented program where animals are used in therapy settings.2 Using animals in therapy has improved communication, gross motor and psychosocial skills, and sensory processing.3 Usually, this therapy is conducted by an occupational therapist.
The human-animal bond theory suggests therapy animals can be thought of as “mental health animals.” Interacting with animals helps to
- promote relaxation,
- reduce stress,
- promote better moods,
- reduce feelings of aggression,
- and initiate daily activities for those struggling with finding their purpose.3
Therapy animals in practice
Animals that have been most used as therapy animals include dogs, horses, and dolphins.3 Therapy animals have been a part of treatment for those who live with
- loss of eyesight,
- and those with dementia.3
Types of therapy animals
Every person will have preferences for types of animals for therapy and will respond best to what is preferred. However, three classes of animals connect best for therapy purposes and have also been the most researched.
- Canine (dog) therapy is the most popular form of animal therapy. Canine therapy has helped reduce certain behaviours in those living with autism.2 Additionally, canine therapy has been shown to
- improve children’s language and motor development,
- improve a person’s self-esteem,
- assist with concentration,
- and help with symptoms in those with dementia.3,4
- Equine (horse) therapy can promote muscle activation in patients and encourage body awareness.3 It’s used in mental health treatment and physical therapies with adults and children.
- Another, possibly more “niche” animal therapy, uses dolphins (delphinotherapy).3 Dolphins are known as the “master therapists”.3 The sounds they emit can help people feel soothed. Delphinotherapy has been used with those with down syndrome, attention deficits, and autism.3
Therapy dogs and autism
A 2020 study from Australia studied the effectiveness of the human-animal bond with dogs and children living with autism.2 The study included 22 children aged four to six years.2 The children were split into a treatment and a non-treatment group. For both groups, the children received occupational therapy for nine weekly one-hour sessions, but the treatment group’s therapy sessions included a dog for seven of the nine weeks.
Researchers analyzed each child’s ability to stay on task and work towards a goal during sessions.2 An example of a goal was for children to independently and accurately write words or sentences instead of just repetitive letters. Children who received canine therapy showed improvement in their ability to reach goals and stay on-task. Nevertheless, when compared to the non-treatment group, these results were not significant.2
The authors noted that when the therapy dog was not present, it required more effort to get the children to stay on-task and work towards goals. The study results show that more studies need to be done with a larger sample size and possibly for a longer period further to test the effectiveness of canine therapy for autism.
Therapy animals for dementia
There is no definitive treatment to slow or intervene in dementia progression.4 Therapy animals pose a promising solution for disease management with little risk of adverse events compared to other therapeutics. A review study examined nine randomized controlled trials of patients with dementia where patients received treatment with either a dog or a horse.4 There was a slight improvement in depression measures when therapy animals were used, but no significant improvements were seen in social function, measures of agitation, and ability to perform daily tasks.4
More research is needed
The use of therapy animals is not a proven science. However, current research does support the interest in furthering the research, particularly for reasons relating to mental health. The human-animal bond is a unique concept. As one study notes, “coming home to a pet is unstructured animal therapy.3
- Human-animal bond. American Veterinary Medical Association. (n.d.). Accessed on Feb 2, 2023. Retrieved from https://www.avma.org/one-health/human-animal-bond#:~:text=The%20human%2Danimal%20bond%20is,%2C%20animals%2C%20and%20the%20environment.
- Hill J, Ziviani J, Driscoll C, Teoh AL, Chua JM, Cawdell-Smith J. Canine assisted occupational therapy for children on the autism spectrum: A pilot randomised control trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2020;50(11):4106-4120. doi:10.1007/s10803-020-04483-7.
- Morales RN. Therapies with animals in neurodiversity. Revista Internacional de Apoyo a la Inclusion, Logopedia, Sociedad y Multiculturalidad. 2020;6(1):118-123. doi: 10.17561/riai.v6.n1.11
- Lai NM, Chang SMW, Ng SS, Tan SL, Chaiyakunapruk N, Stanaway F. Animal-assisted therapy for dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019;2019(11):CD013243. Published 2019 Nov 25. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD013243.pub2