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Animal Assisted Therapy— The Rising Intervention Tool

Date Started: 26th January 2022

Date Ended: 26th January 2022

Author Name: Sanghamitra Dixit

Qualifications: BA (Hons) Applied Psychology, MA Applied Psychology ( Spl. in Counselling)

Designation: Consultant Psychologist, ACRO Mental Health & Wellness.

Word Count: 1,500 words.

Reading Time: 16 mins

Reviewed By: Aishwarya Krishna Priya, Sareem Athar Mariyam Mohammed & Ayesha Begum.

On the use of animals to assist mental health treatment

Animals are calming for most.

Loneliness is one of the most common problems the present generation faces today (1). In a time of social media making people more distant than social and the elderly living longer but not having a social network, loneliness can be a silent killer (2).

As the world encourages independence, a lot of people are opting for living alone (3). In addition, many seem to struggle with trusting others or seeking support from fellow human beings and often find the therapy space too daunting (4). Historically, animals and humans have usually bonded, as humans began settling down and domesticating the nearby wildlife(5). Today, movies like Marley & Me, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, and Free Willy pay ode to this natural yet sacred bond. More and more individuals seem to be opting for pets rather than children, and there are constant calls for altruism towards street animals (6).

All this shows that the human-animal bond has a number of positive effects on individual and community mental health, amongst them being emotional regulation, self-esteem, self-worth, confidence, and communication skills (7). It wasn’t until Dr. Boris Levinson, a child psychologist, published a study, “The Dog as a Co-Therapist”, in 1962 that the inclusion of animals as aides to psychotherapy was even considered (8). Countless studies since then have shown that using animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can go a long way in reducing loneliness or symptoms of it, amongst other psychological pains (9).

Pets are often helpful in easing psychological pain.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Animal Assisted Therapy is a therapeutic intervention involving the use of animals such as dogs, cats, horses, and even pigs— in the treatment plan (9). It is often used to enhance the benefits of traditional therapy in a goal-oriented manner (10). In India, where the field is newly established, the inclusion of animals other than cats and dogs has not been attempted yet(11).

It is used to help people give and take affection, especially in developing communication and social skills and building emotional connect (12). It is also called PET ASSISTED THERAPY or PET THERAPY (13).

Why animals? As highlighted above, the human-animal bond is a powerful one(14). As a part of psychotherapy, however, animals can essentially nurture individuals as they go through turbulent emotions or memories during therapy (15). By providing a sense of calm, comfort, and safety, animals can divert attention from a stressful situation toward one which provides pleasure (16).

Advocates of this school of therapy believe that interacting and developing a bond with trained therapy animals can help individuals form a better sense of trust and self-worth, regulate their emotions, and improve their communication and socialisation skills (17).

Irrespective of the breed or type of species, it is crucial for a therapist or an organisation to choose a well-trained animal/train the animal well (18). Here, animal temperament and their reactions to various stimuli are tested before including them as part of a program (19). When it comes to selecting dogs, calm, friendly, and confident dogs are the most suitable (20).

Dogs are often the most common therapy animals

How It Helps— The Benefits

People of all ages can access animal-assisted therapy— there are no grounds for discrimination (21).Of course, it also depends on how comfortable an individual is with the notion of pet therapy or using animals as part of the process (22).

It is useful in both individual as well as group settings (23). Emotional intimacy with pets can go a long way in improving general mental health across various age groups (24). Those who previously have owned pets agree with animal-assisted therapy and respond to it well (25). In fact, in the United States, it is a common concept to have emotional support animals (ESAs) (26), which are not service animals but pets individuals own for accessing emotional support (27). The pet in question needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness (28). The professionals need to ensure the pet will be taken care of and safe in the assigned duration, as both humans and animals are subject to harm and injury (29).

A study on animal-assisted therapy and its impact on anxiety showed a positive impact on anxiety in people, specifically those in long-term care in psychiatric units (30). The scores showed statistically significant reductions in anxiety after the animal-assisted therapy session for patients with psychotic disorders, mood disorders, and other disorders and after the therapeutic recreation session for patients with mood disorders (31). On the other side of the age bar, studies on loneliness in a nursing home used a live animal and a robotic one (32). The results showed that live animals had a more positive impact on the overall loneliness factors of inpatients in nursing homes as compared to robotic animals (33). As the presence of the animal improves the effectiveness of the therapy (34). It helps people to relax and lower their anxiety levels; it provides comfort and reduces loneliness in clients (35).

According to medical research and therapists who support animal-assisted therapy, patient (36) interaction with therapy animals helps in personal and social development and improves self-esteem, mental health, social and interpersonal skills, empathy, compassion, and nurturing skills (37).

Playing with animals can reduce anxiety and loneliness

From this, we can gather the following benefits:

  • Boosting self-esteem

  • Reducing loneliness

  • Increasing self-worth

  • Developing social skills

  • Motivation to exercise or move physically

  • Improving verbal communication

  • Managing social anxiety and depression

  • Helping children learn skills such as empathy, patience, respect, and compassion (38-45)

Is It For Everyone?— The Harms of Animal Assisted Therapy

Like most interventions and tools, one must keep in mind the risks and pitfalls of including animals in the therapeutic space (46). The therapist must first and foremost ensure that the individual is willing to consent to animals (47). This includes:

  • Disliking or being afraid of animals (48).

  • Feeling no sense of connection to animals.

  • There is a history of being attacked or abused by an animal, as well as hostility towards animals.

  • Any religious or cultural beliefs which prohibit interaction with animals (49).

  • Health complications or allergies to fur or dander.

The biggest risk surrounds concerns of safety and sanitation (50). Animals in therapy programs are and should be screened for their health, behaviour as well as temperament, and a thorough case history must be taken from the clients before letting them meet said animals (51). This includes the client’s temperament, mental health, physical health, and past experiences (52).

Often when people consider the pros and cons of a certain therapeutic tool, they may approach it from a human-centric perspective, i.e. (53) they focus mostly on the harms of humans (54). What often goes amiss is the potential harm that could happen to animals in the case of AAT; there is always cause for animals being mistreated— and being unable to voice it out (55). Simply because they can’t speak does not mean they don’t deserve the rights and dignities of being living creatures in a world shared by all (56).

Therapist should do a thorough check-up.

Though uncommon, a human injury may occur when unsuitable animals are used (57). If handled inappropriately, animals may suffer injury or abuse, and in some cases, a client can become attached to their assigned animal— which can cause a relapse towards depression or low self-worth (58). It is important to remember the welfare of animals in the case of such alternative therapies— they possess their emotional intelligence, feelings, and sensitivity to the way they’re being treated (59). Too often, humans make the assumption that as animals can’t speak up for themselves, they don’t need help or respect (60). According to a study by Girardi and Pezzulo, therapeutic settings often see rises in cases of animal abuse and cruelty in patients with debilitating mental illnesses, despite the most thorough check-ups (61). There isn’t any predicting possible with how individuals treat animals in the end, despite all the steps taken (62).

Animal Assisted Therapy in India

This therapy tool has only recently started to get popular in India (63). Though common in the United States as well as the United Kingdom, there still exists a lack of understanding amongst people in addition to the pervasive stigma towards seeking help for mental health in the first place (64). This limits newly trained animal-assisted therapists from fully putting their practice to use (65). Apart from this, there exists a lack of a governing body that will look into any disregard for ethics, both on the part of the individual as well as the therapist (66,67). All of these mean that more resources are being used to raise awareness of this treatment style rather than practising it to let the results show up for themselves (68,69).


The success of animal-assisted therapy depends on the individual, their therapist, and the goals both parties have agreed upon as part of the treatment plan (70,71). Like with traditional therapy, this is also a 50-50 agreement to meet the expectations of treatment as closely as possible (72). Animal-assisted therapy is just as valid a therapeutic tool as others, and needs to be studied further in India so it may grow— and flourish (73).

If you are considering taking animal-assisted therapy for any mental health issue, you must be informed of all advantages and disadvantages before reaching out to your nearest health care service provider (74,75).


  1. Person with a Dog Sitting on a Grand Canyon Cliff. Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

  2. Woman Hugging a Grey Kitten. Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash

  3. Man Carrying a Black and White Puppy. Photo by Chris Becker on Unsplash

  4. Man Squatting Holding Feet of a Puppy. Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

  5. Two Women on a Couch with Two Dogs. Photo by Chewy on Unsplash


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