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Animals as Healers

Animals as Healers

By: Meghan Corrigan, LCSW

The animal-human bond is depicted repeatedly throughout movies, television and the media.  Just take a moment to think of a bond you may have with fur covered friend.  The term furbaby seems common now, and is used to describe the parent-child relationship between person and animal.  So why do we love animals so much?  They make us laugh, bring us comfort, companionship.  Did you know their skill set can go even beyond that?  Animals have become an intricate part in physical and mental health therapy.

Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) involves the use of an animal in a goal directed activity to improve someone’s quality of life.  This type of work is usually not done by a licensed professional, but rather a trained and certified animal and their handler.  AAA can involve visits, in which people can pet and sometimes play with the animal. AAA visits to nursing facilities have been associated with decreased blood pressure and depression, and an increase in overall satisfaction. Parents of children in pediatric hospitals have reported that a visit from a therapy animal significantly enhanced their child’s mood.

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is when a licensed therapist utilizes an animal as part of the therapeutic process, either directly or indirectly.  The therapist may guide interactions between the client and the animal to work on a specific goal, or allow the animal to provide comfort and support during the therapy session. AAT is associated with client motivation to participate in their therapy sessions, and has been shown to be beneficial in reducing negative behaviors in children and adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems. In adults with a major psychiatric diagnosis, AAT has shown that it can help improve pro-social behaviors, such as being more sociable and helpful with others, more active and responsive to their surroundings.

It seems dogs are the most common animal used in AAA and AAT, however cats, horses and small animals can have a leading role as a co-therapist.  Yes, even chickens!  Look it up, I promise it’s real!  However many legs, however much fur, feather or hair the animal has, they must be able to work safely and cooperatively around people and other animals.  There are several organizations that certify animals for AAA and AAT, and each has their own standards and guidelines that must be followed. It is important to note that certified therapy dogs are service dogs are not the same thing, nor are they interchangeable.

Horses play a very large role (no pun intended) in the world of AAA and AAT. In therapeutic riding, the horse is used to improve the cognitive, social, physical and emotional well being of the rider.  Hippotherapy is when the horse’s movement is used as part of treatment for physical, occupation or speech needs. And the same as dogs, cats or chickens (!), horses can be used in AAA and/or AAT sessions.  When using horses in non-mounted activities, it is referred to as Equine Assisted Activities (EAA) or Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). In an EAP model, a team approach is used in which a licensed mental health professional, equine professional and a person appropriately credentialed to provide EAP activities using a horse, work as team.  Often either the equine professional and/or mental health professional will play a dual role.

Horses socialize similarly to humans.  However, they are always honest, they typically do not have emotional baggage, and never invest energy in to looking good or trying to be something they aren’t.  Because of this, horses can increase our awareness of our thoughts, words, actions, motivation for behavior.  Horses act as a mirror for our own attitudes, emotions and behavior, often people can see themselves more clearly through the eyes of a horse.

Listed below are some sites that can provide further information on therapy dog certification:

Alliance of Therapy Dogs (formerly Therapy Dogs, Inc.)

Listed below are some sites that can provide further information in EAA and EAP:

PATH International:



Chandler, C. (2005). Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, NY,NY.

PATH International:


Get to know Meghan: 

Meghan is a Licensed Clinical Social worker, currently Coordinator for Ocean Mental Health Services Involuntary Outpatient Commitment program. Worked in hospitals, private practice and schools. She has been working with horses for over 20 years as well as being an owner and handler of therapy dog for 7 years.