What is animal assisted therapy?


Animal assisted therapy has been growing in popularity over the last few decades as it can have a positive impact on wellbeing.

Key points

  • Animal assisted therapy involves a range of animals providing emotional support to people with disability or illness
  • It is used in hospitals, clinics, schools, rehabilitation settings and at home
  • The most common form of animal assisted therapy involves trained dogs

This kind of therapy involves animals working alongside professionals to enhance the benefits of therapy and is based on the principle that animals provide non-judgemental emotional support and the opportunity to form bonds with people.

Usually animal assisted therapy will involve dogs as support animals, but it can also include horses, guinea pigs, cats, fish, ferrets, birds, farm animals like chickens, alpacas, donkeys and goats or even zoo animals.

However, it is important to note that it may be difficult to get funding for animal assisted therapy approved in your National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) plan as it must be considered a ‘reasonable and necessary’ support.

Who is animal assisted therapy for?

Most studies and programs have so far focused on the benefit of animal assisted therapy for autistic people, particularly children, however people of different ages and with a range of disabilities or chronic illnesses may also benefit.

This could include people with:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Global Development Delay
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Neurological conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

For people with disability, animal assisted therapy could be used to build school and work based skills, self regulation, social interaction and community engagement, fine and gross motor skills or confidence catching public transport.

It can also develop a person’s sense of self worth, ability to trust and ability to communicate.

Having an animal involved in the therapy can help to achieve this development by reducing the stress of the situation for the person receiving therapy and providing motivation to engage in tasks – whether that task is learning to cook a meal or participating in a social interaction.

Funding for animal assisted therapy may be available to you under the NDIS if you have a goal in your NDIS plan related to social participation and communication skills, emotional and sensory regulation, self-care and daily living activities, or fine motor, gross motor, and coordination skills.

For you to be able to receive NDIS funding for animal assisted therapy though, it must be considered a ‘reasonable and necessary’ support. This means if animal assisted therapy will cost more than another kind of therapy with the same outcomes the NDIS will not fund it.

Animal assisted therapy is considered different to having an assistance animal at home, such as a service dog, because it involves ongoing therapy and is linked with other methods of therapy. Pets and companion animals which live with people with disability are also not considered part of animal assisted therapy, as they don’t work in the same way with the therapist.

How is it delivered?

Occupational therapists usually deliver animal assisted therapy, either with their own trained animals or in partnership with another organisation which provides trained animals and handlers, who may be paid or may be volunteers.

Animal assisted therapy is also used by some psychologists, speech pathologists, social workers, developmental educators and other allied health professionals.

It can delivered to individuals or in group settings and may be used in many different locations, including:

  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Rehabilitation centres
  • Community centres
  • Clinics
  • At home
  • In the community
  • Remotely via telepractice

Animal assisted therapy is always delivered alongside more traditional methods of therapy though, as part of a broader therapy plan, so that people receiving therapy can get the most out of their sessions.

The animal can be directly involved in the therapy, for example a person with disability might benefit from teaching a dog tricks to build communication skills or develop motor skills through brushing and caring for a horse.

But the animal can also be indirectly involved in the therapy and simply provide emotional support by being present.

How do I access animal assisted therapy?

Although animal assisted therapy sounds wonderful, it may not be beneficial or accessible for everyone. It can be an expensive form of therapy if you can’t have the cost covered by the NDIS and it also may not be the best way to support you to reach your goals.

Start by talking to your GP or one of your regular therapists or specialists about whether they think it will suit you.

Your NDIS planner, early childhood partner or local area coordinator may be able to help you find an animal assisted therapist if you are approved for funding for this therapy in your NDIS plan.

If you have a connection to your local autism association they will be able to suggest animal assisted therapy services for you.

The largest providers in Australia also appear in internet search results for ‘animal assisted therapy Australia’. Or you could try using the search function on the Animal Therapies Ltd website, although not all therapists are in this directory and you will have to check their profiles to see whether they are qualified to provide therapy to people with disability.

Have you ever used animal assisted therapy? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

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Occupational therapists
How assistance dogs can help people with disability
Benefits of hydrotherapy for people with disability