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What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) programs help humans overcome, or at least cope with, health problems (both physical and emotional). Dr. Boris Levinson, a US child psychologist, is credited with discovering AAT in the 1960s.
At that time, he brought his dog Jingles with him to visit a withdrawn child and found he was able to gain the boy’s trust, thanks to Jingles’ presence. As Dr. Levinson stated:1
“A pet is an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world. Friendship retains its traditional values and securities in one’s relationship with one’s pet. Whether a dog, cat, bird, fish, turtle, or what have you, one can rely upon the fact that one’s pet will always remain a faithful, intimate, non-competitive friend, regardless of the good or ill fortune life brings us.”
While AAT was met with criticism in the ‘60s, it slowly gained a following and today is commonly used in health care settings. For instance, 60% of hospice-care providers that offer complementary and alternative treatments offer animal-assisted therapy to their patients.2

The Many Talents of Therapy Animals

AAT can take many forms. It may involve patients caring for an animal, as is often the case in equine therapy, or it can involve animals brought into health care settings to interact with patients individually or in groups. For instance, encouraging research to date has shown that equine therapy (interaction with horses) improves symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients.3
Other research has found adults recovering from joint-replacement therapy who used AAT (canine therapy, in this case) used 50% less pain medication.4 It’s truly remarkable how many different health complaints seem to benefit from animal assisted therapy.
According to Pet Partners, a non-profit organization that provides animal-assisted interactions, “AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.”5 

For example, AAT programs may include any of the following goals:

Improve post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Improve standing balance Increase exercise
Improve wheelchair skills Increase attention skills Improve fine motor skills
Increase verbal interactions Aid in long- or short-term memory Increase vocabulary
Increase self-esteem Reduce anxiety Reduce loneliness
Improve knowledge of concepts such as size, color, etc. Develop leisure and recreation skills Improve willingness to be involved in group activities

Sources and References

  • Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can help people cope with and overcome physical and emotional challenges
  • AAT is used for motivation, mental health, reducing loneliness and anxiety, improving fine motor skills and verbal interactions, and much more
  • Animals bring comfort and care to patients with a wide array of health problems, from Alzheimer’s and autism to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and recovery from surgery

Eight Amazing Therapy Animals (not just dogs!)

While dogs and cats are the most commonly involved animals, AAT can also include horses, rabbits, hedgehogs, llamas, pigs, skunks, snakes, and even spiders (including tarantulas, which have been used for therapy in people with autism). Here are eight examples of therapy animals and the lives they’ve touched.

1. Rojo the Therapy Llama and Napoleon the Therapy Alpaca

Rojo and Napoleon have made more than 800 therapy visits to hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and schools near their home in Vancouver, Washington. Only 14 llamas are registered as therapy animals in the US.

2. Oscar the Therapy Cat

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported the story of Oscar, a cat that resided at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island and could predict when residents were about to die. Oscar would curl up next to patients within hours of their deaths, not budging until they had passed. According to NEJM:

“His mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify families. Oscar has also provided companionship to those who would otherwise have died alone. For his work, he is highly regarded by the physicians and staff at Steere House and by the families of the residents whom he serves.”

3. Spartacus, Akita Therapy Dog

Spartacus was among the first on scene after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, and he remained there for months afterward offering support to students, responders, and staff.

Spartacus was so helpful in the wake of tragedy that Connecticut government officials passed a law mandating that crisis victims have access to therapy dogs within 24 hours.

4. Hector, Pit Bull Therapy Dog

Hector is one of the pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation in 2007. He is now a trained therapy dog who visits schools to help children learn about compassion toward animals.

5. Lexy, German Shepard Therapy Dog

Lexy supports members of the military at Fort Bragg, including those with post-war stress and trauma. She’s earned the rank of lieutenant colonel.

6. Buttercup, Therapy Pig

Buttercup is a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig who visits special-needs kids in San Francisco schools, alongside speech pathologist Lois Brady. Together, the team helps children with autism to improve social skills, and one severely autistic boy is said to have spoken to his classmates for the first time after a visit with Buttercup.

7. Elsa, Pit Bull Therapy Dog

Elsa was abused and neglected before she was rescued by a new owner who registered her for a pet visitation program. Elsa, whose own back legs are barely functional, is fitted with a special cart that allows her to make visits with patients in long-term care along with those suffering from spinal cord injuries.

8. Xander, Pug Therapy Dog

Xander had an accident that required both of his eyes to be removed, but that doesn’t stop him from bringing joy and love to others, including victims of child abuse.