Animal Assisted Therapy

Original Editor - Trista Chan

Top Contributors - Trista Chan  

Description[edit | edit source]

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic approach that incorporates specially trained animals into healthcare to enhance the well-being of individuals with cognitive or physical disabilities. AAT is used by various health professionals, for example, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, psychologists and more. The most common types of AAT are canine therapy and equine therapy, but other animals including farm animals, cats and guinea pigs are also being used.

Indication[edit | edit source]

Animal Assisted Therapy is found to be beneficial in a wide range of physical and cognitive conditions, such as dementia/Alzheimer's, oncology and palliative care, pain management, autism, ADHD, trauma and patients with physical, communication or cognitive disabilities, etc.

Dementia/ Alzheimer's disease[edit | edit source]

Studies have found that AAT has a positive physiological and neurological impact, including improvements in both cognition and mood[1], on patients' with Alzheimer's disease[2]. Additionally, due to the presence of animals, AAT improves patients' social behaviour, as it encourages them to engage in social interaction and reduces the feeling of isolation[3].

Pain/ palliative care[edit | edit source]

AAT has shown therapeutic results in palliative care, particularly in pain and behavioural management. The interaction between patients and animals provides a distraction, which helps control and relieve pain[4]. Additionally, animals provide physical contact and emotional support, which soothe mental distress[5]. Studies have observed a reduction in physiological indicators of stress, such as respiratory rate, heart rate and blood pressure, showing positive therapeutic effect[4].

Autism/ ADHD[edit | edit source]

AAT has been an increasingly common intervention for neurodiverse individuals and research findings suggest promising benefits of AAT for both children and adults on the spectrum, with emphasis on positive influence on their sensory, emotional and physical needs[6]. Notable improvements were seen in communication and social interaction skills in children with autism[7]. Moreover, during an animal-assisted activities program, parents reported increased interest in participation among the children involved[8]. Other studies show that incorporating animals into therapy, significantly improves their social and emotional outcome during therapy sessions[9], as well as their self-confidence [10].

Physical disability[edit | edit source]

AAT can be used as an adjunct therapy in addition to traditional physiotherapy for individuals with physical disabilities. AAT is commonly used in neurorehabilitation, such as for those with multiple sclerosis (MS), traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury (SCI) and stroke etc. Studies reviewed that AAT contributes to positive outcomes in balance, gait and quality of life in patients with MS[11], as well as improvements in motor function in stroke patients[11]. Although long-term benefits have not been observed for patients with SCI, short-term improvements in spasticity with AAT have been recorded in several studies[11].

AAT is also common in paediatric rehabilitation, such as for children with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome etc. AAT assists children in setting goals, executing therapy plans, and improving overall physical abilities by encouraging them to use their bodies[12], which can be observed through improvements in gross motor function and upper limb dexterity[13]. AAT also enhance the development of communication and social skills by giving them opportunities to interact[12].

Types of Animal Assisted Therapy[edit | edit source]

Canine therapy[edit | edit source]

Canine therapy involves using specially trained dogs to provide emotional and physical support. Canine therapy is versatile as therapy dogs can be trained to cater for different needs. This type of therapy can be adapted in various settings, such as schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centres, aged care facilities and so on.

Hippotherapy/ equine-assisted therapy[edit | edit source]

Hippotherapy/ equine-assisted therapy involves interactions with horses. Click here for more information.

Other types of AAT[edit | edit source]

Other than dogs and horses, farm animals, cats and guinea pigs have been used in AAT clinically and in research trials. They can be integrated into therapy sessions based on individual therapy goals and preferences.

Resources[edit | edit source]


References[edit | edit source]

  1. Santaniello A, Garzillo S, Amato A, Sansone M, Di Palma A, Di Maggio A, et al. Animal-Assisted Therapy as a Non-Pharmacological Approach in Alzheimer’s Disease: A retrospective study. Animals [Internet]. 2020 Jul 6;10(7):1142. Available from:
  2. Gregorini A, Di Canio A, Palmucci E, Tomasetti M, Rocchi M, Colomba M. Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) in Alzheimer’s Disease: a case study. Healthcare [Internet]. 2022 Mar 18;10(3):567. Available from:
  3. Quintavalla F, Cao S, Spinelli D, Caffarra P, Rossi FM, Basini G, et al. Effects of Dog-Assisted therapies on cognitive mnemonic capabilities in people affected by Alzheimer’s Disease. Animals [Internet]. 2021 May 11;11(5):1366. Available from:
  4. 4.0 4.1 Zhang Y, Yan F, Li S, Wang Y, Ma Y. Effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy on pain in children: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Nursing Sciences [Internet]. 2021 Jan 1;8(1):30–7. Available from:
  5. Gilmer MJ, Baudino MN, Goddard A, Vickers DC, Akard TF. Animal-Assisted therapy in pediatric palliative care. Nursing Clinics of North America [Internet]. 2016 Sep 1;51(3):381–95. Available from:
  6. Ang CS, MacDougall FA. An Evaluation of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorders: Therapist and Parent Perspectives. Psychological Studies [Internet]. 2022 Mar 1;67(1):72–81. Available from:
  7. Ávila-álvarez A, Alonso-Bidegaín M, De-Rosende-Celeiro I, Vizcaíno-Cela M, Larrañeta-Alcalde L, Torres-Tobío G. Iimproving social participation of children with autism spectrum disorder: Pilot testing of early animal‐assisted intervention in Spain. Health & Social Care in the Community [Internet]. 2020 Feb 5;28(4):1220–9. Available from:
  8. London MD, Mackenzie L, Lovarini M, Dickson C, Alvarez-Campos A. Animal Assisted Therapy for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parent perspectives. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders [Internet]. 2020 Apr 24;50(12):4492–503. Available from:
  9. Wijker C, Leontjevas R, Spek A, Enders-Slegers MJ. Effects of Dog Assisted Therapy for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders [Internet]. 2019 Mar 21;50(6):2153–63. Available from:
  10. Schuck S, Johnson HL, Abdullah M, Stehli A, Fine AH, Lakes KD. The role of animal-assisted Intervention on Improving Self-Esteem in Children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Frontiers in Pediatrics [Internet]. 2018 Nov 2;6. Available from:
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Charry-Sánchez JD, Pradilla I, Talero-Gutiérrez C. Animal-assisted therapy in adults: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice [Internet]. 2018 Aug 1;32:169–80. Available from:
  12. 12.0 12.1 Elmacı DT, Cevızcı S. Dog-Assisted Therapies and Activities in Rehabilitation of Children with Cerebral Palsy and Physical and Mental Disabilities. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health [Internet]. 2015 May 12;12(5):5046–60. Available from:
  13. Lasa SM, Máximo-Bocanegra N, Alcaide RV, Arratibel MAA, Donoso E, Ferriero G. Intervenciones asistidas por animales en neurorrehabilitación: una revisión de la literatura más reciente. Neurología [Internet]. 2015 Jan 1;30(1):1–7. Available from: