Animal Assisted Therapy

Sanne Welin

I am sure anyone who is a fan of animals has experienced the stress relief you get from positive interactions with animals. This is something philosophers like Hippocrates considered long ago in ancient Greece where he saw horseback riding as a therapeutic activity. The first person to actively start using animals in therapy was the American therapist Dr. Boris Levinson. In 1996 he wrote the book “Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy”, marking the start of a new branch of therapy, animal assisted therapy. Over the years methods have been developed to treat a number of different conditions with a variety of animals. In this article, a selection of approaches will be presented as an introduction to the field of animal assisted therapy.


Depression is a global illness affecting more than 264 million people globally from all age groups. It is often associated with low-self-esteem, hopelessness and a depressed mood. Animal-assisted therapy is used by several institutions to treat people with depression. Having a pet or engaging with animals promotes activities for battling depression and provides support in difficult situations. For example, physical activity is often prescribed for improving your mental health. A dog needs daily walks which forces individuals to go outside and keeps them from self-isolating at home. A pet can also function as a social bridge and an icebreaker when encountering people. People with depression often withdraw themselves socially and having this bridge aids in limiting this behavior. Researchers have found that even short interactions with animals can reduce anxiety, lower blood-pressure and counteract feelings of depression.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder

Autism is a lifelong syndrome and affects 1 in 160 children, according to the WHO. For each individual diagnosed, the condition is unique in how it presents itself. However, there are some common characteristics of the condition, such as impaired social behavior, communication and language. People living with autism often have a narrow set of interests or activities which differ depending on the person. There are several options available when choosing an animal, more specifically a dog, for a person with autism. There are companion dogs that are not trained but have a calm and comforting personality instilling ease in their owner. It is similar to a family-pet, but by having it, children with autism are provided the opportunity to learn responsibility and practical skills by caring for another being. There are also therapy dogs that are specially trained to provide comfort and affection in stressful situations. The last option is a service dog. These dogs are certified and have gone through extensive training according to the needs of the person they are assisting. There are many organizations that can help pick the right option for a person. The evidence of positive effects regarding animal assisted therapy on people with autism are mostly anecdotal. However, Laurel Redefer and Joan Goodman reported in a study from 1989 that children increased their prosocial behaviour when a dog was present. Later, a study compared how the presence of a ball, a stuffed toy and a therapy dog impact a therapy session. In this study, they found that with a dog in the room, children were more social and focused.


Many people who come home after fighting for their country and human rights continue their battle even after leaving the gunshots behind. Between eleven and twenty percent of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects their everyday life. With the help of service dogs and support animals, symptoms of trauma decreased after only five weeks. In America, there is the opportunity to be assigned a PTSD service dog by American Vetdog (along with many other organizations). A team is created consisting of the individual and their service dog. The team has to complete a 2-week course before heading out into the world. In the documentary, “To be of Service”, it is shown how a team of human and dog improves both the physical and emotional health of veterans in the U.S.


Dementia is a progressive illness, mostly affecting the elderly. A positive effect has been seen in patients interacting with animals, mostly with dogs. People that have had weekly meetings with dogs and their handlers have shown improved behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia, such as decreased agitation, increased social interaction and reduced depression. It has even been found that the presence of fish swimming in an aquarium made patients eat more.


Dogs are a common animal to use in animal-assisted therapy but there are also many other alternatives. The concept “Green care” includes a number of different farm animals and can also include gardening and taking care of plants. These projects have shown to increase self-efficacy in treated people. A more controversial, however increasingly popular animal used for therapy are dolphins. The therapy method was initiated by Betsy Smith in 1970 after seeing her mentally ill brother interacting with a dolphin. Although many say that dolphin-assisted therapy is a magical experience that improves their quality of life, little scientific data has been published to affirm these claims.


Whenever animals are used for the benefits of humans, it is necessary to discuss the ethical aspects. Researchers have examined the moral basis of the practice. The question has been raised whether these animals are used or exploited for their services. It has been demonstrated that there can be mutual benefits for domesticated animals used for therapy. However, as presented above, non-domesticated animals such as dolphins are also used for the same purpose. Because the individuals of wild species used in therapy often live in captivity, researchers argue that they are exploited more than merely being used. Before considering using an animal for therapy, one should also take into account the costs for this individual in relation to the benefits of the human.

Sources: American Vetdog, Autism Speaks, Dolphin World, WHO