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How Pet Therapy Heals What Ails Us

Kristen Howe is a dog and cat lover. She supports the use of AAT to help people heal and cope from what ails them by petting a calm animal.

Pets to the Rescue

Ever since we were little, we relied on snuggling with our stuffed animals, or hugging our pets, during the turbulent and stormy times at home. When we needed someone to comfort us, who do we turn to the most? Our pets! Whether it was a dog or a cat, a scaly lizard, or even a horse, our family pet had always been there for us.

If you like working with animals and helping people cope with their problems, consider being a pet or an animal-assisted therapist. Pet therapy is a broad term that included animal-assisted therapy and other activities.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals like cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, and horses, to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, and mental health disorders.

When It First Started

During the 1930s, Dr. Sigmund Freud became a proponent of AAT during his psychotherapy sessions, when he began using Jofi, his favorite dog. Jofi could signal a person's tension by staying close to the patient.

In the 1960s, Dr. Boris Levinson, a respected child psychotherapist, discovered a nine-year-old nonverbal boy had communicated with his dog Jingles who sat with them during a psychotherapy session. He also noticed similar results in other children.

Later, he authorized Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy and became known as the "father of AAT." In 1989, the Delta Society, a well-known animal education group now named Pet Partners, developed a certification program to ensure animals are proficient in providing AAT.

Pet therapy has been around since the early 1990s. It's now gaining popularity with an extremely positive outlook. Therapist and therapy assistant positions are projected to grow much faster than average for the next decade by over 27%.

A CDC study showed in 2011, more healthcare facilities are now offering alternative therapies to their patients. These animal-assisted activities provide comfort, motivation, education, enjoyment, or recreation to help improve a client's quality of life.

This past May, after the Uvalde school shooting, a dozen therapy dogs were used to comfort the terrorized school children who witnessed that travesty.

How It Works

These complimentary therapy animals alert others about danger and perform direct actions to help their conditions if they're needed. The goal is to help these patients cope or alleviate their symptoms when possible.

The human-animal bond is formed in animal therapy and produces a calming state. This bond aids in reducing boredom, increasing movement and activity through walks and play, providing companionship and decreasing loneliness, elevating social interactions, and improving mood and general well-being.

Overall, it reduces stress and provides a more balanced mental and emotional state to those who use pet therapy.

Benefits of the human-animal bond

Benefits of the human-animal bond

Healing Hands and Calm Paws

After a pet therapy session, a patient would notice a smile growing across their face, feel less fatigued, and have an optimistic outlook. Studies show that it reduces pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in people with a wide range of health problems.

There are many benefits of how AAT is effective for your mental and physical health. It reduces blood pressure and aggression, lowers stress and anxiety levels, enhances self-esteem, and increases emotional awareness and self-regulation.

It also diminishes loneliness and depression, improves your immune system, boosts social support, expands trust and trustworthiness, and stimulates positive verbal communication.

With animal therapy, many goals are depending on the target and type of therapy that's needed for the patient. It ranges from providing comfort, and a sense of calm and safety, reducing pain levels, improving assisted, independent, or joint movement or motor skills, developing social or behavior skills and self-worth, and increasing motivation to join in activities, such as exercise or interacting with others, and continuing their therapy sessions.

With a calm animal in the room, it's the presence that creates and facilitates a conducive environment. Sometimes a therapist would design a specific intervention between the client and the animal interacting in some way to meet a designated goal. For children, adolescents, and seniors, the calming presence of a therapy animal can facilitate communication, and help ease anxiety or resistance.

Studies have also shown that pet therapy sessions improved patient satisfaction, energy levels, self-esteem, and mood, and decrease depression, cardiovascular disease, and stroke risk. Children had used pet therapy to participate in medical procedures like MRIs without the use of anesthesia and other medications.

Who Can Benefit from AAT?

Research had indicated, animal-assisted therapy had helped patients who suffer from these types of mental health ailments and markers of physical health conditions:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety, Fears and Phobias, and Discomfort
  • Depression, Loneliness, and Isolation
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Addiction to Drugs and Reliance on medications
  • Bipolar Disorder and Mood Disorders
  • Schizophrenia and other Cognitive disorders
  • Emotional and behavioral problems in children
  • Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia
  • Some medical conditions like Cancer
  • High Blood pressure and Cardiovascular Disease
  • Fatigue and Grief
  • Chronic Illness and Pain
  • Post-Op Pain
  • Epilepsy and Learning Disorders
  • Heart failure
  • Recovery after a major stroke or another condition that causes them to lose their motor skills.
  • Head injury
  • Psychotherapy resistance
  • Sexual Disorders
  • Tic Disorders
  • Trauma

AAT also helped children having dental procedures, people living in long-term care facilities, and veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Therapy pets are superheroes.

Therapy pets are superheroes.

Lend a Paw

If you're interested in becoming a pet therapist with your dog, you would need to go through training and get certified with your pet. Basic dog training is required for them to have good manners, social skills, and exposure to different settings for this type of volunteer work. Your local Petco offers a training program for your dog to take the nationally recognized AKC Canine Good Citizen Test.

Therapy dogs must be at least a year old, friendly, gentle, patient, confident, and at ease in all situations. They enjoy human contact, and are content to be pet, cuddled, and handled.

If you already have a trained household pet, no training, certification, registration, or documentation is required as a therapy dog. An observer tests the handler and their dog in good manners, demeanor, and handler skills.

After the handling test, the dog handler is supervised on three visits with residents at medical facilities. If the handler's successful with the tests and submitting paperwork, they're a therapy team.

Want to become an animal-assisted therapist? Many colleges offer an online self-paced distance-learning certification program. It can take you, at least a year or two to become certified.


This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Kristen Howe