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Pet Therapy is a generic term used to describe Animal-Assisted Activities and Animal-Assisted Therapy.  Recently, these terms have been summarized with the term, Animal-Assisted Interventions.


Definition of AAT

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession.

AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning. AAT is provided in a variety of settings and may be group or individual in nature. All AAT interventions are documented and evaluated for their effectiveness.


Key Features of AAT are:

  • There are specified goals and objectives for each individual.

  • Progress is measured.

  • AAT is always directed by a professional.

Examples of AAT:

  • A volunteer brings her cat to a rehabilitation center to work with an occupational therapist and a child who has difficulty controlling fine motor skills.  To improve the client’s fine motor skills, the therapist has the child manipulate buckles, clasps on leashes, collars, and animal carriers.  The child also opens containers of treats for the cat and feeds small pieces of food to the cat.

  • In an animal-assisted therapy session designed to improve a client’s ability to sequence events, a therapist teaches a client the steps of brushing a dog.  For example:

    1. Get the brush out of the bag.

    2. Tell the dog to “stay.”

    3. Brush the dog.

    4. Tell the dog, “Good boy!”

Motivated by the opportunity to brush the dog himself, the client remembers the steps, and the therapist has the client recite the order of events aloud as he goes through the actual sequence.

  • A woman recovering from a stroke has limited standing and walking tolerance. A physical therapist uses the presence of a dog to motivate the client by placing the dog on a raised table and asking the client to stand while stroking or brushing the animal’s back and head. To increase the client’s ambulation skills, the therapist has the client walk the dog for short distances around the facility grounds. (The handler uses a double lead and walks alongside the dog and client.)

Definition of AAA

Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) provides opportunities for motivational, educational, recreational, and/or therapeutic benefits to enhance quality of life. AAA are delivered in a variety of environments by specially trained professionals, paraprofessionals, and/or volunteers, in association with animals that meet specific criteria.

Typically, animal-assisted activities are casual "meet and greet" activities that involve pets visiting people.  The same activity can be repeated with many people, unlike a therapy program that is tailored to a particular person or medical condition.  As an example of AAA – an individual brings their dog to a long-term care facility to visit the residents. Although the staff is involved in the visits, no treatment goals have been set for the visit. Aside from signing in and out, no records are kept.

Key Features of AAA:

  • Specific treatment goals are not planned for each visit.
  • Volunteers and treatment providers are not required to take detailed notes.
  • Visit content is spontaneous and visits last as long or as short as needed.

Examples of AAA:

  • A group of volunteers take their dogs and cats to a nursing home once a month to "visit." The visit occurs as a large-group activity with some direction and assistance provided by facility staff. The volunteer group facilitator keeps an informal log about who was visited.

  • An individual brings her dog to a children's long-term care facility to "play" with residents. Although the staff is involved in the visits, the staff has not set treatment goals for the interactions. Aside from signing in and out, no records are kept.

  • A dog obedience club gives an obedience demonstration at a residential facility for teenagers with delinquent behavior.



Benefits of Pet Therapy

Human-animal interactions may provide the following benefits to adults and children in a variety of human care facilities:


(Identifying with and understanding the feelings and motives of another.)

Studies report that children who live in homes in which a pet is considered a member of the family are more empathetic than children in homes without pets.

Children see animals as peers.  It is easier to teach children to be empathetic with an animal than with a human.  With animals, what you see is what you get. Humans are not as direct.

Outward Focus

(Bringing individuals out of themselves.)

Individuals who have mental illness or low self-esteem focus on themselves; animals can help them focus on their environment rather than thinking and talking about themselves and their problems.  They watch and talk to and about the animals.


(Promoting the growth and development of another living thing.)

Nurturing skills are learned.  Many at-risk children have not learned nurturing skills through the traditional channel - their parents.  By being taught to take care of an animal, children can develop these skills.  Psychologically, when a person nurtures, his/her need to be nurtured is being fulfilled.


(A relationship of mutual trust or a feeling of connection or bonding.)

Animals can open a channel of emotionally safe, non-threatening communication between client and therapist.

In therapy settings, animals help present an air of emotional safety.  If a therapist has an animal in his/her office, s/he "can't be all bad."  The animal's presence may open a path through the person's initial resistance.  Children are especially likely to project their feelings and experiences onto an animal.


(Favorable reception or approval.)

Animals have a way of accepting without qualification.  They don't care how a person looks or what they say.  An animal's acceptance is nonjudgmental, forgiving, and uncomplicated by the psychological games people often play.


At a minimum, the presence of an animal can be entertaining.  Even people who don't like animals often enjoy watching their antics and reactions.  Especially in long-term care facilities, it seems everyone is entertained by animal visits in some way.


(Seeking out or enjoying the company of others.)

Studies have shown that when dogs and cats come to visit a care facility, there is more laughter and interaction among residents than during any other "therapy" or entertainment time.  In an inpatient setting, the presence of animals encourages socialization in 3 ways:

  • Between clients.

  • Between clients and staff.

  • Between clients, staff, and family or other visitors.

Staff members have reported that it is easier to talk to residents during and after animal visits. Family members often come during the animal visits and some have reported that it is an especially comfortable and pleasant time to come.

Mental Stimulation

Mental stimulation occurs because of increased communication with other people, recalled memories, and the entertainment provided by the animals. In situations that are depressing or institutional, the presence of the animals serves to brighten the atmosphere, increasing amusement, laughter, and play.  These positive distractions may help to decrease people's feelings of isolation or alienation.

Physical Contact, Touch

Much has been written about the correlation between touch and health.  Infants who are not touched do not develop healthy relationships with other people and often fail to thrive and grow physically.  For some people, touch from another person is not acceptable, but the warm, furry touch of a dog or cat is.  In hospitals, where most touch is painful or invasive, the touch of an animal is safe, non-threatening, and pleasant.  There are a number of programs for people who have been physically or sexually abused in which staff and volunteers are not allowed to touch the clients. In cases like these, having an animal to hold, hug, and touch can make a world of difference to people who would otherwise have no positive, appropriate physical contact.

Physiological Benefits

(Positive effects on the basic functioning of the body.)

Many people are able to relax when animals are present. Tests have shown that the decrease in heart rate and blood pressure can be dramatic. Even watching fish swim in an aquarium can be very calming.

Note: This information is provided by Pet Partners®

Sharing The Unconditional Love Of Our Pets

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Updated: October 29, 2017