Animals And Therapists: Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

Your shrink isn’t the only one who can help you keep your mental health in check. Therapists have been using animals to complement the help they give their patients. While many of us are already aware of this, a good percentage of people still don’t know about specifics. Here are some facts that you likely didn’t know.

It’s Been Around Longer Than You Think

As a formal field, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is relatively new. However, we have been using animals to improve people’s mental well-being since the time of the Ancient Greeks. These warriors would make use of horses to try and cheer up their injured comrades.

Later in the 1800s, Florence Nightingale also observed the effect that animals had on people. He surmised that small animals such as birds made good companions for those who were ill. They would help bring down levels of stress and anxiety.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that we saw formal research taking place. The first to do so was Dr. Boris Levinson. While working with young patients with mental impairment, he discovered that his pet dog would have a positive effect on them. These children seemed to be more comfortable socializing with the dog than other people.

Therapy Animals Are Not Service Animals

Is a therapy animal also a service animal? The answer to that is “no.” It can get pretty confusing given that there are many terms related to animals helping one’s well-being. Let’s dissect the three most common words you’ll hear: service animal, emotional support animal, and therapy animal.


Service animals are those assigned to people with specific needs and have certain privileges granted by local governments. They’re trained to perform specific tasks to aid their owners. The most common example of this is a guide dog for the blind. Another is a psychiatric dog performs taught deep pressure therapy (DPT). DPT is a task wherein they use their body weight and warmth to ease their owner’s anxiety in case of a panic attack.

Meanwhile, emotional support animals (ESAs) do not require any training. Because of the lack of restrictions, not all ESAs exhibit good behavior. While they may serve as a calming presence for their owners, they can be disruptive or harmful to others. They also don’t have the same exclusive rights that service animals have, such as being allowed into different establishments. “College students today are facing a great deal of stress and emotional support animals may help some students,” said Phyllis Erdman, PhD. “We hope our study can serve as a guide for colleges and universities to develop policies that help students thrive.”

Lastly, therapy animals go through training, but not the same type as their service counterparts. They’re more sociable since they mostly work in a group environment. Their roles vary from providing comfort to the sick to giving kids the confidence to read. Additionally, unlike service animals, they typically help other people instead of just their owner. “The effects of the pet therapy are measurable, as seen by an increase in the release of endorphins in the person interacting with the animal. Endorphins are brain chemicals that are released and make you feel good,” Elena Blanco-Suarez Ph.D. wrote.

The First Therapy Animal Was A Dog


Man’s best friend was also his first animal therapist. Smoky the tiny Yorkshire Terrier is the first documented case where psychologists made use of an animal to deal with people’s well-being. Smoky walked alongside nurses in New Guinea, keeping World War II victims company.

Dogs Are The Most Common Therapy Animals; Horses Are Second


If dogs are #1, who’s second? Sorry for our feline friends but horses go home with the silver medal. Equine therapy helps improve both mental and physical health. Miniature horses have become very popular because of their size. Their small and cute stature makes it possible for them to visit patients in hospitals and kids at daycare. This trend gives us all the more reason to ask for a pony next Christmas.

According to Tori Rodriguez, MA, LPC, “Dogs are the most commonly used animals in such teams, accounting for 94% of those registered the organization, which also evaluates potential AAT animals from eight additional species: cats, horses, rabbits, pigs, birds, llamas and alpacas, guinea pigs and rats.”

Therapy Animals Help Treat Several Conditions – Including PTSD

Our therapy friends can assist in treating several different kinds of conditions. Research with those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) shows positive results. Those with PTSD seem to improve when therapists give them the task of taking care of animals. It helps them readjust to a healthy life back home.

Final Words

When it comes to therapy animals, they do more than a regular pet would. The idea with animal-assisted therapy is to have animals help people heal in a structured way with an objective in mind. These loveable creatures complement the help that professionals provide. Add in your commitment to better yourself, and you’ll be on the road to a better mental state.

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