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Topic: Animal-assisted Therapy
Researched and written by: Lindsay Wilson
                                                I attest that the following report is a product of my own original work.

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Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is the use of animals to attain certain goals in a professional therapeutic environment.  The animals can be used to promote certain advancements in individuals receiving therapy.  Animal-assisted therapy can often be an important catalyst for therapist/patient bonding.  A survey of research shows that AAT can be extremely  helpful when used in an appropriate context and setting.  However, there is a definite need for more research on this topic.

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Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a fairly old practice, but it has just recently drawn a lot of attention and interest.  The Delta Society (as cited by Nebbe, n.d.) defines animal-assisted therapy as the use of an animal in a goal oriented intervention. AAT is provided and documented by professionals.  Furthermore, it is designed to promote advancements in social, emotional, physical, and/or cognitive operation (Nebbe, n.d.). It is also important to note that animal-assisted therapy should always be an adjunctive intervention and not in isolation of other services (Fitchett, Granger, Helmer, Kogan, & Young, 1999).  Almost any animal can be used in AAT as long as it is a pleasant, sociable animal.  However, before animal-assisted therapy can be implemented, the client’s feelings and allergies to animals should be taken into account. 

Boris Levinson was the first to draw attention to the role of animals in therapy when he documented that many of his child clients that were withdrawn and uncommunicative would respond positively and interact when his dog, Jingles, was present (Netting, New, & Wilson, 1987). Since that time, AAT has been implemented worldwide and has been shown to be effective in many therapy programs. Animal-assisted therapy has been very effective with children and has been implemented into school and residential programs. However, most of the reported successes come in the form of case studies and personal anecdotes (Fawcett & Gullone, 2001) and are lacking empirical evidence.

            AAT is useful in all therapy programs because animals can serve as a catalyst to conversation (Netting, et al., 1987).  For this reason, Corson et al. (as cited in Netting, et al., 1987) refer to the animal as a social lubricant.  An animal is useful as an icebreaker (Missel,2001) to begin interactions with the therapist and the client.  Animal-assisted therapy has also demonstrated its usefulness in stress reduction and alleviation of depression (Castro, Friend, McMahon, & Nathanson, 1997).  Research has shown AAT’s association with lowered heart rates and blood pressure (Friedmann as cited by Farnum & Martin, 2002), reduced anxiety (Barker as cited by Farnum & Martin, 2002), and greater self-esteem (Walsh as cited by Farnum & Martin, 2002).  The animals can be used to calm the clients and create opportunities for discussion.
          Animal-assisted therapy has been especially effective with children.  Wilson’s research (as cited by Fawcett & Gullone, 2001) shows that children have an innate fascination and curiosity towards animals. One could see why it would be easier for a child to empathize and relate to an animal whose actions are simple and obvious, than with a human who exhibits more complex behaviors (Nebbe, 1991). Beck and Katcher (as cited in Hanselman, 2001) stated that children are more relaxed when in the company of an animal.  There is evidence that a situation can be deemed less threatening to a child if an animal is present (Friedmann, Katcher, Lynch, Messent, & Thomas, 1983).  This change in the child’s view of the environment (Friedmann et al, 1983) can make a therapist seem friendlier and easier to talk to. A bond can be formed with the therapists due to the mutual relationship with the animal (Nebbe, 1991).
            Animal-assisted therapy can be used in specific target populations of children. It has been  proven effective with children who have emotional disorders, pervasive developmental disorders and Down’s syndrome (Bradshaw, Cormack & Limond, 1997; Farnum & Martin, 2002; Fitchett,et al., 1999; Gullone, 2003; Hanselman, 2001; Haynie, et al., n.d.).  AAT has been proven successful for children that have emotional disorders.  An emotional disorder is defined as a chronic condition characterized by emotional responses that differ from norms (Shank, Smith, Turnbull, & Turnbull, 2004).  Davis (as cited in Nebbe, 1991) found that children with emotion disorders become more readily involved with animals rather than people or tasks. The AAT program can help a child that is emotionally disturbed gain non-aggressive voice tones, appropriate eye contact, and proper techniques for sharing and playing (Fitchett, et al., 1999) by practicing with an animal.  It is easier to practice with an animal because they will not argue or reject them. These techniques, learned with an animal, can then be generalized to other humans.

          One specific type of emotional disorder, Conduct Disorder, which is defined by the DSM-IV (as cited by Gullone, 2003) as a constant and repetitive pattern of behaviors that violate the basic rights of others and other age-appropriate societal norms, is particularly targeted by animal-assisted therapy.  It is thought that by teaching children with risk of conduct disorder (CD) to have empathy and concern for others, their developmental trajectories may be modified (Gullone, 2003).   An animal-assisted therapy can be directed at re-focusing the child’s aggressive and dominating actions towards caring and gentle actions in a relationship free of rejection and full of unconditional positive regard. The child can form a secure attachment with another living being which will contribute to their basic sense of trust (Gullone, 2003).  These lessons can then be transferred to human relationships.

          Those with pervasive developmental disorders can be positively influenced by animal-assisted therapy. The American Psychiatric Association (as cited in Farnum & Martin, 2002) states that pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs) are a genre of disorders including autistic disorder, Rett’s syndrome, Asperger’s, childhood disintegrative disorder, and PDDs not specified. Common to all of these disorders is a lack of social interaction and communication skills (Farnum & Martin, 2002).  Traditional therapies have not been particularly helpful with these disorders.  For this reason, animal-assisted therapy has been gaining momentum in this field.  ATT has been shown as beneficial to these children by using animals as transitional objects between bonds with the animal to bonds with people.  A study by Farnum and Martin (2002) found that when in the presence of a therapy dog, children with pervasive developmental disorders were happier, looked around the room less, talked less frequently about topics unrelated to a conversation, and were more likely to agree with requests made by the therapist.  This shows an increase in less one-sided, more meaningful and focused discussions. 

A specific type of pervasive developmental disorder, autism, has been the sole topic of a few studies in animal-assisted therapy.  Autism is a neurological disorder that interferes with behavioral development (Haynie, Gardner, Reed, Sams, Sides, Smith, et al., n.d.).  It can include deficient use of language, inability to focus, failure to interact, and repetitive actions or behaviors.  A study by Haynie et al. (n.d.) of a school-based therapy program showed that AAT induced speech, self initiated interactions, and focus of previously withdrawn children.  This shows that AAT can help make improvements in the three areas that those with autism struggle with the most.  In another study by Redefer & Goodman (as cited by Farnum & Martin, 2002) animal assisted therapy was found to increase social behaviors, decrease stereotypical behaviors (i.e. hand-flapping), and decrease self-absorption.  Animal-assisted therapy should be considered a highly exceptional option for those with autism, considering that other therapies have not proven very helpful.

There is also some interest in the effect of animal-assisted therapy on children with Down’s syndrome. A study by Bradshaw, Cormack and Limond (1997) found that children with Down’s syndrome were more responsive to the therapist when a dog was present.  Also, the responses were more likely to be cooperative. Furthermore, the children were less distracted in sessions when the dog was present.  Overall, the study showed that the presence of a dog, in therapy with children with Down’s syndrome, can encourage positive interactions and focus the child’s attention on the activities at hand.

Animal-animal assisted therapy can be used in schools and in residential facilities.  Animals can have visiting days with guidance counselors in schools.  This will give the counselors a chance to talk to students who just want to stop in to see the animal (Chandler, 2001).  Another possibility, pointed out by Chandler (2001), is that students who need to talk to the counselor can use the animal as an excuse to visit the office.  As Nebbe (1991) states, the animal can also establish a respect for the counselor and a rapport with the children. The animal makes the office feel like a safe, inviting environment.

In residential facilities the animals can be used as a peaceful escape as well as a learning tool.  Green Chimney’s residential treatment center is a farm for children that are experiencing emotional and academic difficulties (Mallon, 1994).  Resident children are allowed to visit, work at, and take classes on the farm.  In a study, by Mallon (1994), he found that children visited the farm whenever they needed to feel better.  Residents also reported talking to the animals when they needed to confide in someone.  They trusted the animals because they knew the animals would not judge them or repeat what they said (Mallon, 2004).  Just talking about your problems, even if you are talking to an animal, can be therapeutic.  Mallon (2004) also describes how talking to the animal can serve as a catalytic agent in bringing the child together with a therapist.  They learn to trust the animals which can help them transfer trust to humans.  Overall, the farm is a safe place for these children to turn when they need to brighten their day.

           Animal-assisted therapy has many benefits for mankind.  The right kind of human-animal bond can create miracles.  It can help children learn to trust, love, and nurture.  Animals can teach responsibility and empathy.  They can help a child learn something it seemed impossible to teach them through human interaction. However, there is not enough empirical evidence in this topic.  Solid, experimental studies need to be done to give this therapy the attention and backing it deserves. As more research is done, the benefits will become more apparent and current techniques more refined (Missel, 2001). With substantial evidence, will come financial support and a wider utilization of animal-assisted therapy. 



Related Websites
Welcome to the world of animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities.
Utah Animal-assisted Therapy Association
Kind Planet: A community celebrating life!


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Castro, D., Friend, H., McMahon, M., & Nathanson, D. (1997). Effectiveness of short-term dolphin-assisted therapy for children with severe disabilities.  Anthrozoos, 10(2-3), 90-100.

Chandler, C. (2001). Animal-assisted therapy in counseling and school setting.  Retrieved on November 1, 2004, from

Farnum, J. & Martin, F. (2002). Animal-assisted therapy for children with pervasive developmental disorders.  Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24(6), 657-670.

Fitchett, J., Granger, B., Helmer, K., Kogan, L., & Young, K. (1999). The human-animal team approach for children with emotional disorders: Two case studies.  Child & Youth Care Forum, 28(2), 105-121.

Fawcett, N. & Cullone, E. (2001). Cute and cuddly and a whole lot more? A call for empirical investigation into therapeutic benefits of human-animal interaction for children.  Behaviour Change, 18(2), 124-133

Friedmann, E., Katcher, A., Lynch, J., Messent, P., & Thomas, S. (1983). Social interaction and blood pressure: Influence of animal companions.  Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 171(8), 461-465.

Gullone, E. (2003). The proposed benefits of incorporating non-human animals into preventative<> efforts for Conduct Disorder.  Anthrozoos, 16(2), 160-174

Hanselman, J. (2001). Coping skills intervention with adolescents in anger management using animals in             therapy.  Journal of Adolescent Group Therapy, 11(4), 159-195.

Haynie, K., Gardner, A., Reed, C., Sams, M., Sides, J., Smith, H., et al. (n.d.). Differential behavioral responses in autistic children: Animal-assisted therapy versus conventional therapy.  Retrieved November 8, 2004, from

Mallon, G. (1994). Cow as co-therapist: Utilization of farm animals as therapeutic aides with children in residential treatment.  Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 11(6), 455-474.

Missel, M. (2001). The use of choice theory in animal assisted therapy for children and young

             adults.  International Journal of Reality Therapy, 20(2), 40-41.

Nebbe, L. (n.d.). Animal-assisted activities/therapy as an animal and human welfare project. Retrieved November 1, 2004, from Psychologists For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals Web site:

Nebbe, L. (1991). The human-animal bond and the elementary school counselor.  School Counselor, 38(5), 362-371.

Netting, E., New, J., & Wilson, C. (1987). The human-animal bond: Implications for practice.  Social Work, 32(1), 60-64.

Shank, M., Smith, S., Turnbull, A., & Turnbull, T. (2004). Exceptional Lives: Special education in today’s schools (4th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.

This website is a service learning project by the students of "Psychology of the Exceptional Child" at Frostburg State University.  Manager of web page and project: Dr. Megan E. Bradley