Animal-assisted therapy involves interaction with animals to help treat health issues, including depression.

The idea of using animals in a therapeutic way goes back centuries. Historical accounts include using animals to improve the morale or engage the attention of the elderly and to help people with disabilities improve their skills.

How Animal-Assisted Therapy Works

Interacting with an animal—whether playing with it, caring for it, or simply petting it—is believed to have several positive effects on a person, from creating a sense of calm to providing a sense of purpose. Any animal may be used, but common therapy animals include cats, dogs, horses, birds, and rabbits.

Studies have shown that petting an animal can cause a depression patient’s brain to release chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals are designed to counteract the body’s reaction to pain by causing a sense of pleasure or well-being.

The Delta Society, an organization that supports the use of therapy animals, describes two kinds of therapeutic interactions that can be conducted with animals: animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapies. The difference is in the structure of the interaction.

  • Activity sessions usually involve meet-and-greets with a number of patients and animals. The meetings are unstructured and free from detailed goals.
  • Therapy sessions are more formal and usually include set therapeutic goals for the patients.

Though animal-assisted therapy does not yet have much clinical evidence backing its usefulness, a large body of anecdotal evidence supports it.

Pros of Animal-Assisted Therapy

According to the Delta Society, benefits of animal-assisted therapy include:

  • drawing attention to the animal and away from problems
  • encouraging empathy and/or nurturing skills in the participant
  • instilling a feeling of acceptance or fulfillment in the participant
  • causing a calming effect in the participant

Cons of Animal-Assisted Therapy

The risks of animal-assisted therapy are the same as those of handling or being around animals. This includes the potential for allergic reaction or attack. The animals and their handlers should both be trained for activity/therapy scenarios. 

What the Expert Says

“Some of the problems associated with depression are social withdrawal and feelings of loneliness,” says Steve G. Kopp, a licensed mental health counselor and marriage and family therapist with Genesis Health Systems. “Animal-assisted therapy gives a person a feeling of companionship and acceptance.”

Animal therapy can have profound effects, Kopp says. When patients soothe animals they are interacting with, they often end up soothing themselves.