In the vast and growing world of therapeutic interventions, one surprising but heartening ally has emerged (and with scientific backing to boot) – our four-legged furry buddies!
Canine companions in particular have been making therapeutic headlines with studies showing that these four-legged therapists can bring about substantial improvements in human physical and mental health conditions.
From aiding in the treatment of debilitating disorders like autism and ADHD to helping manage severe mental health conditions and heart disease, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has proven its worth.
Today, we’re highlighting animal therapy facts and statistics showcasing just how impressive and powerful animal-assisted therapy can be.
Facts About Therapy Dogs and Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)
Dogs are the most common therapy animal, but others animals can provide theraputic benefits too.
Animal-assisted therapy can involve a variety of animals including cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, horses, farm animals, dolphins, wolfdogs, and wolves.
Animal therapy can reduce pain by 34% in patients with fibromyalgia.
Source: University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
One study exploring the effect of animal therapy on patients with fibromyalgia found that pain severity was significantly reduced after a brief therapy dog visit (with the average visit from the therapy dog being 12 minutes).
The study found clinically meaningful pain relief reported in 34% of fibromyalgia patients after the dog visit vs 4% in the waiting room control group.
Animal-assisted therapy can lower blood pressure by 10%.
Source: University of Missouri-Columbia
According to a study conducted by the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2004, participants had their blood pressure drop by around 10% within 15 to 30 minutes of petting a dog.
This is especially fainting, as it shows that even a relatively short interaction with a dog can lead to a substantial decrease in blood pressure.
The quick reduction in blood pressure suggests that interaction with animals could serve as a natural and effective method of stress relief, and aligns with the broader understanding that pets can provide comfort while helping to relieve stress and anxiety.
Similar studies on the physical health benefits of animal interactions could have broad applications in various healthcare settings. For example, an animal-assisted therapy treatment could be implemented in settings where patients experience high stress or anxiety, such as before surgery or during certain medical treatments.
Animal therapy can boost immune system function.
Source: Charnetski 2004
Some researchers have discovered an increase in salivatory immunoglobulin A (an indication of a healthy immune system), after individuals spent less than 20 minutes petting a dog.
So, dogs aren’t just good for our mental health. They can benefit our physical health too!
Dogs can reduce stress and anxiety by as much as 24% in heart failure patients.
Source: American Heart Association
A study investigating the benefits of animal therapy on hospitalized heart failure patients revealed that those who received a visit from a human volunteer and a dog showed a significant drop in anxiety scores.
The research included 76 patients who were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: a visit from a volunteer and dog team, a visit from a human volunteer only, or no visit.
Anxiety scores for those who interacted with the volunteer-dog team dropped by 24%.
It’s not all rainbows –– there are risks to animal therapy as well.
Although AAT has many benefits, it’s also important to consider potential risks like animal instincts leading to accidents, potential for zoonotic infection, and issues of hygiene.
Some forms of animal therapy, such as dolphin therapy or wolf-assisted therapy, are controversial.
Source: Esteves 2022
Certain types of AAT such as dolphin therapy and wolf/wolfdog-assisted therapy are controversial due to potential stress on the animals and safety concerns.
Dolphins and wolves/wolfdogs, in particular, are not domesticated animals and have specific needs related to their natural behaviors and environments. Using them for therapeutic purposes might compromise their welfare, especially if the animals are not properly cared for or if the therapy sessions are not conducted in a manner that is mindful of the animals’ well-being.
Many argue that these practices can be exploitative, as they may place undue stress on the animals and disrupt their natural behaviors.
Additionally, the safety of individuals participating in these forms of AAT is another major concern. Both dolphins and wolves are large, powerful animals, and interactions with them can potentially pose risks, especially when they feel stressed or threatened.
Animal therapy has been shown to reduce the need for pain medication following surgery.
(Source: Loyola University)
According to a 2009 study, adults who used canine therapy while recovering from total joint-replacement surgery required significantly less pain medication.
More research in needed to better understand the full benefits of animal therapy.
Despite the observed benefits, AAT is considered hard to quantify and “prove,” leading many experts to call for more rigorous research to substantiate its therapeutic value.
While AAT is unlikely to replace conventional drug treatments, it could be a valuable complement, potentially improving patients’ quality of life.
74% of pet owners say their mental health improved because of their animals
Source: Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI)
In one survey of dog owners conducted by HABRI, 74% of respondents believed that owning a pet improved their mental health. Additionally, 75% of pet owners reported a friend’s or family member’s mental health has improved from pet ownership.
Therapy dogs provide opportunities for petting, affection, and interaction in a variety of settings but are not defined as service dogs under the ADA.
Therapy dogs and service dogs each play crucial but distinct roles in human support and assistance.
A service dog, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.
These tasks often include things like guiding people who are visually impaired, alerting individuals who are hearing impaired, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, etc.
Service dogs are allowed by law to accompany their human in virtually all areas where the general public is allowed.
On the other hand, therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort and affection to people in a variety of institutional settings, like hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and disaster areas.
Unlike service dogs (who assist a single individual), therapy dogs are encouraged to interact with a variety of people while they are on-duty. They might visit a child recovering in a hospital, provide comfort to grieving family members at a funeral home, or even provide relief to stressed-out students during finals week at a university.
However, under the ADA, therapy dogs are not granted the same wide-ranging access as service dogs. They are usually only allowed in places where they have been invited to provide therapeutic interaction.
Facts About Therapy Animals & Effects on Autism
75% of individuals with autism experienced improvements in language and communication following the use of animal therapy.
Source: O’Haire 2017
Research has shown that in studies where language and communication were evaluated, 75% reported significant improvements in communication and language for individuals on the autism spectrum following the use of animal-assisted therapy.
Children with autism experienced a 54% increase in social behaviors after engaging in animal-assisted therapy.
Source: Purdue University
One study from Purdue University found a 54% increase in social behaviors for children with autism following animal-based therapy.
A 54% increase in social behaviors implies a substantial improvement in the ability of children with autism to interact socially, which could include increased engagement in conversations, improved eye contact, more frequent initiation of social interactions, and better responses to social cues.
Purdue University also found a 43% reduction in a physiological indicator of anxious activation with animal therapy – another sign that animal therapy can have a tremendously positive impact for children across the autism spectrum.
This data also underscores the value of non-human interaction for children with autism. Animals, particularly dogs, provide a non-judgmental companion that can make social interactions less stressful and more enjoyable for children.
Children on the autism spectrum showed an increase in social behavior after engaging with guinea pig therapy.
Source: Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI)
Another study found that, with the introduction of guinea pigs, children on the autism spectrum showed an increase in social behavior such as talking and physical contact.
The eight-week study conducted with ASD and Human-Animal Bond Research Institute was done with 64 children and shows how the positive impact of guinea pigs on social behavior among children with ASD aligns with findings involving other animals, such as dogs.
This is great news, as it indicates that a range of animals could potentially be beneficial in animal-assisted interventions!
Guinea pigs are relatively low-maintenance and small-sized pets compared to other animals often used in AAI, like dogs or horses. This could make implementing such interventions more feasible in different settings, such as schools as guinea pigs are easier to care for.
Families of children with ASD might more readily consider adopting a guinea pig, as they can be easier to manage than larger pets like dogs.
Due to their small size and generally passive nature, guinea pigs can also be less intimidating for children, potentially making interactions even more enjoyable and less stressful.
Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) has been shown to improve emotional, social, and communication skills in people with autism.
Source: Xioa 2023
In addition to guinea pigs and dogs, equine therapy has been found to have a substantial impact on people with autism as well.
One journal review found that equine therapy resulted in “considerable improvements in the social cognition, communication, irritability, and hyperactivity domains”, but not in the areas of “social awareness, mannerisms, motivation, lethargy, stereotypy, or inappropriate speech.”
So, while animal-assisted therapy does seem to have positive impacts, it seems more research is required to understand exactly what the benefits are and how far-reaching the effects are on those with autism.
Facts About Animal Therapy & Mental Illness
Animal therapy has been used to treat a variety of serious mental health conditions like schizophrenia, as well as more common conditions like depression.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been implemented as a therapeutic intervention for various mental health conditions, including severe ones such as schizophrenia, as well as more prevalent conditions like depression.
The therapy harnesses the calming and comforting presence of animals to help alleviate symptoms associated with these mental health issues.
The use of animal therapy in treating both severe and common mental health conditions suggests its wide applicability in the mental health sphere. This diverse range of use implies that AAT can be beneficial irrespective of the severity or type of mental health condition.
Given its potential, animal-based therapy could even potentially serve as an alternative or complement to traditional treatment modalities for mental health conditions – especially for individuals who may not respond to conventional treatment methods or have adverse reactions to medications.
Animal therapy can improve mood in patients with schizophrenia.
Source: Sahebalzamani 2020
Several studies have illustrated that animal therapy can have an especially impactful change on patients with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.
In schizophrenia patients, time with animals resulted in improved mood and happiness, with less feelings of loneliness.
Some studies have also shown a significant decline in anxiety following just a 30 minute animal therapy session.
Animal-assisted therapy can enhance cognitive function and increase recovery in patients with traumatic brain injury.
Source: University of Basel
A clinical trial by psychologists from the University of Basel, published in Scientific Reports, has shown that animal therapy can enhance social competence and emotional involvement in patients with severe traumatic brain injuries.
The study involved 19 adult participants undergoing both conventional and animal-assisted therapy sessions, revealing that patients exhibited more active social engagement and expressed twice as many positive emotions when animals were present.
Patients also reported higher satisfaction and increased motivation to actively participate in therapy when animals were present. This can be crucial in recovery, as motivation often correlates with therapeutic success.
As of 2011, nearly 60% of U.S. hospice care providers offering alternative therapies also provided pet therapy to their patients.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The fact that nearly 60% of U.S. hospice care providers offered pet therapy as a part of their complementary and alternative therapies is indicative of the growing acceptance and incorporation of animal-assisted therapies in traditional medical care settings.
This utilization not only exemplifies the recognition of the holistic benefits of pet therapy but also underlines the shift towards patient-centered care models, while acknowledging the emotional, psychological, and physical comfort pets can bring during end-of-life care.
Facts About Therapy Dogs & Effects on Dementia Patients
Pet dogs, in particular, can have a powerful impact on Alzheimer patients.
Source: Bright Focus Foundation
A 2002 study explored the impact of a resident dog, as opposed to a visiting dog, on the behavior of individuals in an Alzheimer’s special care unit.
Researchers tracked the residents’ behavior during the day and evening shifts for a week before and for four weeks after the introduction of the dog.
While no significant changes were observed during the evening shift, those in the day shift exhibited significantly fewer behavior problems throughout the four weeks of the dog therapy study.
Animal therapy can improve mood and reduce loneliness in Alzheimer’s patients.
Source: Lai 2019
Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to have multiple benefits for individuals with dementia, including promoting social interaction, reducing feelings of loneliness and agitation, and promoting feelings of relaxation.
Psychological benefits were also reported in dementia patients who underwent animal therapy, including increased responsibility, self-esteem, and independence in nursing home residents.
Animal therapy has been shown to lower stress, reduce loneliness, improve confidence, and even improve anger management for those with dementia.
Source: Klimova 2019
Animal therapy has been reported to decrease stress and anxiety, reduce feelings of depression and loneliness, enhance self-confidence, and foster improved social interactions and skills.
Interestingly, animal therapy has also shown the potential to aid in better anger management. This could be particularly beneficial in certain therapeutic contexts, such as for individuals dealing with aggression or impulse control issues.
Some even theorize that animal therapy can slow dementia symptom progression, although studies have varying success proving this.
Equine therapy has been shown to improve symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients.
Source: The Ohio State University of Veterinary Medicine
A 2023 study from Ohio State University found that equine therapy, an AAT variant involving horses, improved symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients. Participants demonstrated signs of improved mood and more physical activity through the equine horse therapy.
Equine therapy has also been found beneficial for individuals with physical disabilities by enhancing their strength, flexibility, and balance.
Animal therapy can reduce agitated behaviors and significantly increase positive social interactions for dementia patients in nursing homes.
Source: UCLA Health
In 2003, the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias published a study that measured the effects of a therapeutic recreation intervention using animal-assisted therapy on the agitated behaviors and social interactions of older adults with dementia.
In the pilot study, 15 nursing home residents with dementia participated in a daily animal therapy sessions for three weeks.
The result? Statistically significant decreases in agitated behaviors as well as statistically significant increases in social interaction! It would be great to see animal therapy and dog therapy used more often in nursing homes, as it would likely benefit both patients as well as staff.
Facts About Animal Therapy & Effects on ADHD
Therapy dogs can reduce inattention and improve social skills in children with ADHD.
Source: UCI Health
In a randomized trial conducted by Dr. Sabrina Schuck at UCI Health, the effectiveness of therapy dogs was measured when it comes to reducing symptoms of ADHD in children.
Over five years, the study looked at seven cohorts of 12 children (a total of 88 participants, ages 7-9) diagnosed with ADHD. All of the children (and their parents) received training on how to interact and engage with the dogs, but only half of the group physically interacted with the therapy dogs.
During two weekly sessions, the children had semi-structured time to bond with the dogs, which involved rotating through activities like throwing a ball or flying disk, grooming the dogs, working with them on agility, or other activities.
The children were then instructed to participate in didactic lessons to build social skills. Whenever the kids engaged with the sessions, they were rewarded by being allowed to sit or lie down next to the dog.
In addition, they also wrote letters to the dogs, and on Saturdays engaged in dog-training techniques.
The study found that children who interacted with the dogs experienced reductions in inattention and improvements in social skills and self-esteem when compared to the control group without dogs.
However, no effects were observed regarding hyperactivity and impulsivity.
Interestingly, the same results were found after a follow-up measurement six weeks after the interactions with the dogs ended.
These findings are especially interesting because hyperactivity and impulsivity tend to decline with age, while problems with attention (which dog involvement helped with) tend to persist through life and are generally the more challenging issues to treat.
Future plans for the program involve understanding who benefits most from animal-assisted interventions and how to feasibly implement them, particularly in school settings.
Facts About the History of Therapy Dogs & Animals
The therapeutic effect of animals on patients was first popularly documented by Florence Nightingale in the late 1800s.
Florence Nightingale, often known as the founder of modern nursing, was a pioneer in many aspects of health care, including recognizing the therapeutic potential of animals.
Born in 1820 in Florence, Italy, she gained fame for her work during the Crimean War, where she improved sanitation practices in British war hospitals, significantly reducing the death rate.
While working in a psychiatric facility in the late 1800s, Nightingale noted that small pets could have a significant impact on the well-being of patients. She observed that patients responded positively to these animals, displaying reduced anxiety and stress.
This was one of the earliest documentations of what we now know as animal therapy.
The context in which Nightingale made these observations is important. In the late 19th century, mental health care was still in a relatively primitive state. Many treatments were harsh or inhumane, and patient care was often neglectful or abusive. Nightingale’s recognition of the importance of comfort, companionship, and humane treatment in patient recovery was revolutionary for the time.
The labeled concept of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) was introduced in the 1960s.
American child psychologist Dr. Boris Levinson first named the concept of “animal-assisted therapy (AAT”) in the 1960s, witnessing the therapeutic effect his dog Jingles had on a withdrawn 9-year-old boy.
Initially met with skepticism, a decade after presenting the concept to the American Psychological Association, Levinson found that 16% of 319 surveyed psychologists were using companion animals in their therapy sessions.
Facts About Animal Therapy Training Programs
Therapy animals and handlers must undergo extensive training to provide therapy treatment.
Therapy animals often undergo rigorous training and testing. They are evaluated for obedience, temperament, and tolerance of noise and distractions – critical qualities that ensure their suitability in a variety of environments.
The US has over 500,000 service animals that help physical and mental ailments.
Source: The Zebra
Increasingly more American are looking to pet therapy and animal-assisted therapy to help with with physical impairments as well as mental health issues.
It takes roughly 1-2 years to train a service dog.
Source: American Kennel Club
Training a service dog is a substantial commitment that often takes between 1 to 2 years. The duration can vary based on the dog’s breed, temperament, and the specific tasks the dog needs to be trained to perform. The complexity and variety of tasks the dog needs to learn can also affect the time needed.
Only 50% to 60% of dogs in training through a service training organization successfully become registered service dogs.
Source: Assistance Dogs International (ADI)
Assistance Dogs International (ADI), a coalition of not-for-profit organizations that train and place assistance dogs, suggests that, on average, about 50-60% of dogs that start training successfully become service dogs. However, this is a rough estimate, and it can vary considerably from one program to another.
The remaining dogs are generally not wasted efforts.
Dogs that do not complete service dog training can often be placed in other roles where they can still be of help to people, such as therapy or emotional support dogs, or they can be adopted as pets.
It’s also important to understand that a “failure” in service dog training is not always a negative thing for the dog. In many cases, a dog might be deemed unfit for service work simply because they would be happier in a different environment, and trainers prioritize the well-being of the dogs they train.
Over 60% of US colleges have an animal therapy program.
Source: The Zebra
With pet therapy and animal therapy becoming increasingly popular, and as more studies support the power relationships with animals can have on individuals, more colleges have begun creating animal therapy programs to further support and explore the unique connection between animals and humans.
Animal therapy can cost anywhere from $100 to $300 per session, depending on whether or not it’s covered by health insurance.
Source: Psych Central
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) costs can vary widely, ranging from $100 to $300 per session. This price range is dependent on a multitude of factors, including location, therapist qualifications, session length, and the type of therapy.
It’s intriguing to note that health insurance coverage also plays a significant role in determining the cost for individuals.
Given the substantial benefits associated with AAT, it raises pertinent questions about the accessibility and affordability of such therapeutic interventions for the wider population.
The potential for health insurance to cover such therapies could herald a major shift in how mental and physical health treatments are perceived and funded.