Why Animal-Assisted Therapy is Important and How to Benefit From It

how to benefit from animal assisted therapy

* This article deals with treatment, laws, and regulations regarding registered service animals, therapy animals, and comfort animals in the US. For other areas, please contact your local regulations and government offices to learn your particular laws.*

What is animal-assisted therapy?

In recent years, many medical therapists have begun using animals to help people heal and recover from traumatic injury. This is called animal treatment, pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy. It has various terms depending on who uses it.

It should not be confused with real animal physical therapy where it is the animal that receives physical therapy. It can also be confused with animal massage therapy where the pet gets the massage. During animal-assisted therapy, no animal does work on the person but only assists and provide comfort.

While more common in the rest of the world, the US is slowly catching up using animal-assisted therapy. Many people find this animal therapy a helpful addition because it relaxes people, helps reduce recurring injuries and reduces depression.

Although no one can say how animal therapy works, the animals provide tangible benefits, helps the person physically, and helps afford the right incentive. Everyone who uses animal-assisted therapy agrees it works.

Pet Therapy Definition

Pet therapy is defined as a type of therapy that involves animals as a form of treatment.

This is a broad definition that covers many disciplines and forms of treatment. Fortunately, animals can be incorporated into many different types of treatment, improving the results of all of them.

Types of Healing Animals

types of therapy animals

There is even several degrees of support that healing animals can give through animal-assisted therapy. The top-level is a service dog. This is a legal definition. Under the ADA, a service dog is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability.

Service dogs are legally required to be allowed into any situation that a person typically would undergo that does not compromise the health or safety of other people. For example, service dogs are required to be allowed into restaurants and hospitals but are not allowed in public pools.

In the past, the other types of service animals included horses and pigs that were trained and held legal protection. However, as of 2011, no new service animal other than a dog would be accepted under the protections of the ADA. Animals that were currently in use were given a grace period but were eventually replaced by service dogs.

ADA Service Dogs

Therapy animals can be just about any animal that has been trained to provide comfort. There are several different types of therapy credentialing agencies that help people certify their pets to become therapy animals. However, there is no legal requirement or registration. Therapy animals do not have legal protection and can be removed from any situation that does not allow pets. These types of animals are used for animal therapies.

Emotional support animals and comfort animals are the last class. Any animal may be classified as a comfort animal or emotional support animals. It's very trendy now to call your pets to comfort specialists.

These animals have no legal protection and are legally banned from any place that prohibits pets. There is no certifying agency or registration for these types of animals. A note from a mental health professional is all that is required to have your animal certified.

Just as a word of warning, in the US, being diagnosed with any mental disorder that inhibits any normal function of life will create barriers and prohibit specific legal activities, such as obtaining passports, purchase of firearms and weapons, and working with youths and minors (teachers, counselors, etc.). It is believed and supported by the courts that if you cannot function healthily, you are not responsible enough to travel widely, handle dangerous objects, or be in a position of authority over children. Currently, a diagnosis cannot be removed and will follow you for the rest of your life.

Animal Therapy Benefits

Animal therapy is used in many different circumstances. One of the most popular uses in children for animal therapy is for autism. There are many cases where children with autism work with a cat or a dog therapy animal, and because of the low emotional impact and low pressure, the animal gives it allows the children to reduce their anxiety and accomplish tasks they usually are not able to.

Often, these dogs are trained to stop repetitive or dangerous motions people with autism often display. Sensory signal dogs or social signal dog, SSigDOG, is the designation for a dog that is trained to aid a person with autism. In some cases, this training may be specific and intense enough to qualify for a service animal. But, this is only the case if the dog came from a particular organization that registered under the ADA laws.

Animal therapy is often used for depression. In one study, the purr of a cat was found to stimulate healing behaviors and stimulate proper hormone production in people who are depressed. It was found the effects of petting a cat who was purring for 15 minutes was the equivalent of taking a single dose of depression medication.

Of course, anyone who has ever owned a cat knows it's difficult to get some cats to put upon request.

In another study that was a little bit more practical, researchers discovered that when a person sees a dog wagging its tail in happiness, it releases dopamine into the brain and provides temporary happiness.

how pets help manage depression

For anxiety, there are several different types of therapy, animals and service dogs. The service dogs are specially trained to recognize the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks, and they have helped many veterans with PTSD in hopes of reducing the impact of the panic attacks and reducing them entirely.

Therapy Animal Registration

As we said before, there is no legal requirement for animal-assisted therapy, emotional, or comfort animals. Many places offer pet therapy training and will provide individual private certification. However, this certification is not regulated or governed by any legal body.

Because there is no oversight of these animals, they do not fall under the protection of the ADA and are considered pets.

Service dogs, on the other hand, are legally governed by the ADA and enjoy legal protection under the law. There are only a few agencies that are permitted to provide these types of service animals. Some of these programs will allow a person to train their own service animal and then the agency will place the animal through a test to verify its legal status.

A service animal in training is legally defined as a pet and does not enjoy any ADA protections.

Therapy Cats

Cats are lovely as therapy animals, however, getting a cat to follow commands is a lot more challenging. You can register your cat as a therapy animal through the agencies that we’ll post below. Several of these agencies will also help you to get a therapy cat if you so require.

It is not commonplace to see therapy cats, except in situations dealing with the elderly and children. Typically because of their trying nature to train, therapy cat registration and certification is not often used.

therapy cats

More popular in psychology, cats provide secondary treatments for people with mental problems. Dogs are often used first because of the unconditional love and trust. Cats are more aloof and difficult to become close to, and it helps to create an understanding of boundaries and patience.

There have been many uses of cats and kittens in an unusual therapy setting, however. In recent widespread news stories, local animal shelters are overrun with abandoned kittens, and they turn to local nursing homes to save and socialize the kittens. The elderly population was requested to bottle feed and play with the kittens until they were old enough for adoption. In a surprising turn of events, the doctors at the nursing home were overjoyed to see the rates of depression, forgetfulness, and injury disappear almost overnight. Because of the publicity, more shelters are partnering with nursing homes, benefiting both the animals and people.

Several smaller hospitals are also using cats to help children with cancer and people who are bedridden. The program has been limited again, based on the difficulty of training cats and their small size.

Equine Therapy

horse therapy

Horse therapy, known as Equine-assisted therapy, is a potent and motivating therapy for those who can access it. Horse therapy has been used for autism, depression, motor control, and injuries.

Generally, you will find equine therapy schools and programs that work with local hospitals to provide this training. Frequently, people, mostly children, are brought to the facility and are allowed to ride very calm and docile horses for a period. Because of the gentle movements of the horse and the constant readjusting of motion, it has proved very successful in aiding mental and physical problems.

It is also very successful in aiding people with PTSD and autism. Since horses are naturally skittish animals, people with anxiety or distress become responsible for keeping the horses calm. This stimulates proper mental mechanisms for dealing with stress in the people.

Assistance Dogs

The most abundant class of service animals and therapy animals are dogs. At the top of the list are service dogs. The difference between a therapy dog and a service dog is vast. In general service, dogs train for a specific task, such as guiding the blind, sensing seizures, or responding to an auditory stimulus.

In contrast, therapy animals are merely there to provide some aid, but mostly comfort. Some therapy dogs can train just as much as a service dog and some therapy animals do provide specific tasks, however, because of the laws, therapy animals do not have any legal protection.

In the past, service dogs were limited to a few highly reliable breeds such as Labradors and German shepherds. Recently, however, due to successful programs that are using mutts and what were considered aggressive breeds, service animal service dogs now come in a range of breeds and styles.

One highly successful program was in prison. The inmates took care of puppies and young dogs and their task was to teach them specific behaviors that would allow the dogs to become police dogs, guide dogs for the blind and PTSD dogs for veterans. Most of the dogs that the inmates trained are rescues from local shelters.

Mental Health Service Dogs

The fastest-growing field for service dogs is the use of psychiatric service dogs. These service dogs are used for depression, anxiety, and for veterans with PTSD.

People with autism can also use service dogs to help them perform daily tasks and keep them from wandering off. As more is understood about mental conditions and the way dogs can support people, more and more dogs train for highly unusual tasks.

One person we knew several years ago suffered from a seizure disorder. A service dog was trained to be able to detect when a seizure would be happening and would begin to alert the person and others around that something was wrong. Because of the advanced warning, the person could take their medication before the seizure, which would reduce the severity. The dog was also trained to trigger a button on the person’s cell phone that would call an ambulance.

Service Dog Programs & Organizations

Provides service and therapy dogs for veterans.

Highly popular organization for people with mental handicaps and degenerative diseases.

This group focuses on physical handicaps.

There are also several Seeing Eye and Hearing Dog organizations. We recommend finding one near you so you can be involved in the training.

Service Dog Laws

Service dogs are protected under the ADA laws. These service dogs have individual licenses and registrations that certify them with state and federal agencies. Under the law, people who have service dogs are required to keep their identification current but are not required to carry it at all times.

Special harnesses or vests are not required to be worn, although many of them do to alert other people who may distract the dog. In the case of guide dogs for the blind, this can prove very dangerous for the person. Under specific state laws, diverting a service dog leading to injury of the handler is considered assault, and can be prosecuted as such.

Several organizations will help you to get a service dog. Unfortunately, you are not going to find any service dogs for sale, as this is a very highly regulated industry. Many service dog 'failures' are available for adoption, and they often become therapy dogs and police dogs.

Several of the organizations that we list below will allow you to train your own dog and go through them for proper certification. There are stringent guidelines and requirements that you will need to meet before your dog can be certified.

Comfort Dogs

Comfort dogs have become much more popular with people who do not have severe mental disorders. There is no certification or registration for comfort dogs. In most cases, there's not even training for the comfort dog. It is just an animal that is there for the emotional well-being of the owner.

Most pets can be classified as comfort animals. They bring stress relief and help to the soul of their owners. It is well known that cats and dogs help relieve stress and can reduce health issues. Owning a dog or cat is associated with a 40% reduction in heart disease.

Some animals have been classified as emotional service dogs or animals. In a few rare cases, these are actual service dogs, but in the majority of cases, it is just an incorrect term. Service dogs are related to dogs that have been specially trained to serve a specific purpose and are protected under the law. Emotional support and comfort animals have no protection under ADA laws.

Therapy Dogs

These type of dogs have been trained or have the natural disposition to be calm and friendly when in groups of strangers. There are many different types of therapy dogs. Typical breeds for therapy dogs tend to be the larger more friendly dogs such as Labradors, German shepherds, and dogs bred explicitly for show purposes, like poodles (we know poodles were initially guard dogs, but that’s not the case today).

However, as many shelters have found the best therapy dogs tend to be mutts. These dogs typically are rescues and are extremely happy to be loved and have people who want to interact with them.

There have been many benefits of the programs and is especially true in cancer wards and nursing homes. In some cases, dogs have been introduced into physical therapy routines to encourage people to complete their exercises. It's believed that when people are distracted by the dog, they focus less on their pain and allow their natural body movement.

Many therapy dogs visit hospitals and nursing homes. They provide comfort and enjoyment to the residents who are unable to keep their pets or had to give up their pets upon moving in.

In recent years when the situations happen at schools, therapy dogs are brought in to comfort the students. Bringing therapy dogs into the schools helps reduce stress and provides a different focus for the students.

Puppy therapy helps people who are not emotionally stable and have had severe trauma. In this case, small puppies are introduced to people and are allowed to play. The puppies serve no practical purpose other than to bring joy and happiness to their people. It is typical training for service dogs to be put through this type of training to increase their social tendencies.

Throughout the country, libraries are instituting reading therapy dogs. This is a program where therapy dogs come in, and children are allowed to read to the animals. Because of the low impact and stress the animals provide, the children are often able to read to the animals, where they would have trouble or the complete inability to read to adults. It’s commonly used with children who have ADHD, and the therapy dogs provide unconditional love and support.

Some therapy dogs are also used to help people for anxiety and depression. These therapy dogs can be found for sale, although the price is often very high. Various organizations help train these dogs and then sell them to people who are looking for a dog for themselves or to help others in need.

However, the therapy dog programs below take animals that are already owned by people and train them to become therapy dogs.

There are no official therapy dog certificates or registry. Several programs we have listed below will allow you to go through testing requirements to obtain the right qualifications that many hospitals and nursing homes look for.

In most of these programs, the therapy dog training focuses on being put through a series of tests and situations, and the ability of the dog to handle those situations will define whether the dog classifies as a therapy dog. Once the test is passed, you can register your dog as a therapy dog in the organization.

It is recommended that therapy dogs wear harnesses or vests identifying the therapy dog organization that you belong to and the purpose. Many of these vests also suggest people do not approach the dog without permission.

For people seek therapy dogs, many organizations will help. Many of these therapy dogs cost hundreds of dollars. And unfortunately, most insurances will not cover the therapy dog, legally considered a pet and not a necessity. Because therapy dogs are not covered under the ADA, they are restricted to where they go.

That is why most people choose to make their own dog a therapy dog. The certification is less expensive than purchasing a therapy dog, and the training can be done by nearly anyone.

This group provides training, in-house certification, and dogs for a variety of therapy needs.

They focus on networking handlers and supplying information to organizations that want to use therapy dogs.


Animals are great healers, and they can help us in a variety of ways. For people who have disabilities that impact their lives and make living challenging, service animals can be a great benefit. Many organizations help provide service animals for the blind and emotionally impaired.

Therapy animals and emotional support animals also becoming very popular. While these animals enjoy no protection under the ADA and are highly restricted where they can go, many people feel it is worth registering their pets in this fashion.

For most people just having a pet is enough emotional support. For those who are restricted by where they live and cannot have pets, most shelters look for individuals to help take care of basic grooming and play needs of pets waiting to be adopted. Also, cat and dog cafes are becoming increasingly popular.

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Christina Major

Christina Major is a holistic nutritionist, traditional naturopath, and herbalist. She has a Master’s degree in Holistic Nutrition and an advanced degree in Traditional Naturopathy. Further certifications in herbalism and metabolic typing. She owns and operates Crystal Holistic Health Consulting based in PA, the USA since 2010.