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Animal-Assisted Occupational Therapy

Gwen Davis-Barrios
Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Young
Mar 25, 2024

Animal-Assisted Occupational Therapy: How Animals Can Improve Patient Health

From pleasant puppy encounters to mood-boosting kitten videos, animals make people happy. But did you know that they can also improve your health? Animal-assisted Occupational Therapy (OT), also known as pet therapy, uses animals to help with OT patients’ psychological, emotional, mental, and cognitive health. At Joyce University, our Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program teaches various therapeutic practices to help patients with physical and emotional needs. Animal-assisted therapy is one way you can help your patients live happy, healthy lives.

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy is a form of occupational therapy. As an OT modality, animal-assisted therapy uses positive relationships with animals to help with patients’ psychological, emotional, and physical health. In pet therapy, patients interact with well-trained animals and their handlers under the guidance and supervision of an OT or OTA. Animal-assisted therapy is usually part of a larger treatment plan that may include exercise, skills training, or cognitive care.

What is the Difference Between Service Animals and Therapy Animals?

There can be confusion about the difference between service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals. Here’s how they differ:

Service Animals

Service animals are thoroughly trained animals that live and work with one specific client who has a disability. All service animals have specialized training so they can help their owners with specific, disability-related tasks.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are well-trained animals that usually only interact with patients on a short-term basis, like during OT appointments. When they are off the clock, most therapy animals are simply pets. Any well-behaved animal can pass a screening to be a therapy animal. Therapy animals are typically dogs, cats, rabbits, or horses, but they can also be pigs, guinea pigs, llamas, or other animals.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals (ESA) are support pets that live with someone to provide emotional and psychological support. A therapist or psychiatrist can prescribe emotional support animals. ESAs can’t fly on most airlines and can’t go into restaurants, but they do get housing accommodations which means that they can live in otherwise pet-free housing. Any pet can be an ESA.

How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work?

In animal-assisted therapy, OTs and animal handlers help patients interact with well-behaved pets. This can take place in a variety of settings: hospitals, nursing homes, chemical dependency centers, psychological treatment centers, and even dental offices have found success with animal-assisted therapy.

In some cases, animal-assisted therapy can simply look like patients petting or sitting with dogs or cats. Sometimes animals aid in therapeutic activities through play. Individualized OT goals shape the way individual animal-assisted therapy sessions work.

What are the Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Many benefits of animal-assisted therapy have to do with animals’ calming and mood elevating effects. These can benefit mental, physical, and cognitive health, as well as skills improvement. Pet therapy has proven healthcare benefits and improves many facets of wellbeing.

Mental health benefits of animal-assisted therapy

These may seem obvious, but they’re very important: being around animals cheers people up! Because OT looks at people’s holistic health, happiness is key. A systematic review of 36 articles on animal-assisted therapy found that it’s effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and pain.

Physical health benefits of animal-assisted therapy

Just being around animals can lower many patients’ blood pressure and heart rate. Recent studies show that elderly patients with chronic joint pain reported feeling less pain during OT sessions when animals were present.

Skills benefits of animal-assisted therapy

Having an animal present can encourage OT patients to perform therapeutic treatments and exercises, and it makes them more fun. Joint movement exercises are much more enjoyable when they include tossing a ball for a dog!

Cognitive health benefits of animal-assisted therapy

Happy, relaxed patients are more willing to participate in therapeutic behaviors, especially ones that take them out of their physical or emotional comfort zone. Animal-assisted therapy can help OT patients to emerge from their shell and participate in cognitive therapies that they dislike doing.

What are Animal-Assisted Activities in Occupational Therapy?

Dog owners know that a motivated pup will get you out of the house and walking around the block. Animal walks are one example of animal-assisted activities in OT. Therapies don’t need to be physical or strenuous to count as AAA. Petting, playing with, and even talking to an animal can count as AAA in OT.

What is the Future of Animal-Assisted Occupational Therapy?

With roots going back to Ancient Greece, where physicians wrote about the therapeutic effects of riding and working with horses, pet therapy has stood the test of time. As of 2020, 4.28 million Americans worked in animal-assisted therapy. Now, with complementary treatments becoming more and more accepted, animal-assisted therapy is here to stay.

What are Animal-Assisted Therapy Jobs?

OTAs interested in animal-assisted therapy can research work as Recreational Therapists (RT). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the mean animal-assisted therapy salary (as an RT) earns $51,330 annually, averaging $24.68 per hour. The field is expected to grow over the next decade, opening the door to more opportunities.

What are Animal-Assisted Therapy Programs?

An OTA program is an ideal first step toward a career in animal-assisted therapy. Joyce’s OTA program teaches the skills to help diverse populations live a whole and healthy life through several modalities.

OTAs hold a key role in maintaining our aging population’s lifelong health. Attending an OTA program that incorporates animal-assisted therapy can give you and your patients an advantage when it comes to holistic health.

Animal-Assisted Therapy Certification

A Joyce OTA degree is a great start for an animal-assisted therapy career. If you find your calling in OT and want to specialize, you can earn animal-assisted therapy certifications from:

Advanced Programs for Animal-Assisted Therapy

Another way to make a career in animal-assisted therapy is to pursue advanced education. Studying as an OT or licensed counselor can open up sustainable career options that include help from furry or feathered friends.

Therapy Animal FAQs

What Patients Qualify for Animal-Assisted Occupational Therapy?

Animal-assisted OT can help many kinds of patients, including those with neurological differences, mental illnesses, physical injuries, and disabilities. In order to qualify for animal-assisted OT, patients usually can get a referral from a psychologist, OT, or physician.

Is Pet Therapy the Same as Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Yes, pet therapy is a casual term for animal-assisted therapy.

What Animals Can Be Therapy Animals?

Many different species can be therapy animals. The most common therapy animals are dogs, cats, horses, and rabbits. However, pigs, guinea pigs, llamas, and other animals can also be part of animal-assisted OT treatments.

If you’re an animal lover and want to tap into animals’ natural healing power to help others, consider a career in animal-assisted therapy. Joyce University’s OTA program can help you start your rewarding career in OT today.


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