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Animal-Assisted Interventions

Human-Animal Interactions (HAI) describes, in broad scope, the way that people’s and animals’ lives co-exist. All four areas of VSW are encompassed in the term “Human Animal Interactions.”

There are various forms of HAI that have beneficial outcomes for human beings.  These various forms have definitions that demarcate one from another. Also, in the literature, there is some crossover between terms. In 2014, the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations (IAHAIO) released a white paper highlighting these distinctions. We have aligned our definitions with IAHAIO’s  in order to support consistency (which is lacking in the field of HAI).  Additionally, we clarify that there is a difference between therapy animals, emotional support animals,  companion animals and service animals.  It is important to make these distinctions in order to grasp a deeper understanding of human animal interactions.

Types of interventions

Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) is an intervention that intentionally includes an animal as part of the therapeutic process. These interventions are goal oriented and structured. AAI can be utilized in health, education, and human services (IAHAIO, 2014). The individuals conducting AAI must have knowledge of the people and animals incorporated in the therapeutic process.  Animal Assisted Therapy and Animal Assisted Education are formal services that incorporate AAI.

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a structured therapeutic intervention with deliberate inclusion of an animal in a therapeutic treatment plan. Generally, AAT involves a licensed therapist who guides interactions between a patient and an animal to reach specific goals (Chandler, 2012; IAHAIO, 2014). Similar to traditional therapy, AAT must utilize a plan, monitor client progress, and be documented in therapy notes (IAHAIO, 2014).  The inclusion of an animal is designed to accomplish outcomes believed to be difficult to achieve without the animal (Nimer & Lundahl, 2007).

Animal Assisted Education (AAE) must be conducted by a qualified teacher and in an educational setting. AAE is formal, goal oriented, and structured. This form of intervention has various desired outcomes including improved cognitive functioning, academic goals, social skills, and responsible pet ownership (IAHAIO, 2014).

Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) are informal interactions that can be led by professionals, paraprofessionals and volunteers. In order for human-animal teams to take part in AAA they must have received some form of assessment or introductory training. These activities have a wide variety of purposes including motivational, educational, and recreational (Kruger and Serpell, 2006; IAHAIO, 2014).  Though these are informal interactions, they must be planned and goal oriented (IAHAIO, 2014).  AAA is commonly seen in nursing homes and hospitals (Chandler, 2012).

Animal Species

Within AAI literature there is the use of a wide variety of animals. In order to be used in interventions or activities, animals must be domesticated and well socialized. Animals commonly used include dogs, cats, rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs, birds and rats. Other animals that may be effective in animal assisted interventions include miniature horses, cows, goats and chickens.

Horses have two terms used to describe their use in animal assisted interventions. The first term is Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP). This is when a horse is used to assist in mental health therapy. The second term is Hippotherapy, which is when a therapist uses the movement of the horse to increase physical mobility of the client (Kruger and Serpell, 2006).

Not all animals are suitable for animals assisted interventions or activities. Animals which are not suitable include species that are not domesticated, such as dolphins and monkeys, and animals that are not well socialized. These animals are unpredictable and can cause harm to those around them.

Active Animal Roles

Therapy animals are animals that are used by licensed therapists that aid in the achievement of therapeutic goals. In order for an animal to qualify they must meet certain criteria (Kruger and Serpell, 2010). Animals must be obedience trained and thoroughly evaluated in order to maximize positive interactions between client and animal (National Service Animal Registry, 2016).

Animal assisted activity animals are animals that are brought in by a volunteer, paraprofessional, or professional. These animals are typically pets that have had some form of training or assessment. Animals used in animal assisted activities can help with a variety of tasks depending on the purpose of their visit. An example of an animal assisted activity program is the HABIT Ruff Reading program. The HABIT Ruff Reading program puts dogs and volunteers, which have gone through a screening process, into classrooms. The dog provides a source a comfort for young students as they read aloud.

Emotional support animals provide therapeutic support to individuals who are suffering from debilitating symptoms (Wisch, 2015). In order for an animal to be considered an emotional support animal, a licensed therapist must be able to verify that their clients level of functioning is directly dependent on an animal. Emotional support animals have limited legal protection. The Fair Housing Act and the Department of Housing and Urban Development require housing providers to make accommodations for those with emotional support animals. Even if housing providers do not allow pets, it is illegal to discriminate against tenants who have emotional support animals. Additionally, it is unlawful to impose a pet deposit or fee for an emotional support animal (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2013). Another law that prohibits discrimination against emotional support animals is the Air Carrier Access Act (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2003). This act requires airlines to allow emotional support animals on flights along with their owners. For more information about these acts, please reference the links below.

*** UT Veterinary Social Work position statement: In order for a person to ethically obtain a therapist’s letter for an emotional support animal, they must have an ongoing relationship with a therapist within their state of residence for six months or more. After six months, the therapist must be able to confirm that the client requires an emotional support animal to alleviate symptoms of their diagnosis. Additionally,  there are various websites that unethically sell emotional support animal certificates without assessing a client. The Veterinary Social Work Certificate Program does not support social workers providing documentation after less than 6 months of ongoing contact or the use of these websites. ***

Service animals are trained to be medical assistants to the disabled and are permitted to accompany their owner, handler, or trainer in public facilities and accommodations (i.e. guide dog) (Chandler, 2012). Service animals can offer assistance in a variety of ways including, but not limited to, guiding those with visual impairments, alerting the hard of hearing to sounds, warning handlers of an oncoming seizure and reminding their handler to take their medication (Brennan & Nguyen, 2014).  Service animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to prohibiting access to public facilities, this act prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, education, transportation and air travel. Unlike service animals, therapy animals are not medical assistants and therefore are prevented from accompanying owners into every facility. Another important distinction between service animals and therapy animal is that service animals are not supposed to be touched without permission and notice of both the animal and the handler. For more information about service animal rights, please reference the link below.

Passive Animal Roles

Companion animals permanently live with a human and can help to increase the animal and human quality of life (Hart, 2006). These animals are also known as pets.

Wildlife  provides an opportunity for humans to observe animals, rather than physically interact with them. In 2009, approximately 60 million people in Americans considered themselves bird watchers (Chambers, 2014).

Farm animals can take an active role in animal assisted activities, however more often they play a passive role. Farm animals, similar to wildlife, provide an opportunity for individuals to observe animals. Some individuals raise farm animals for a food, while others consider them to be pets.

Special Considerations

Though animals may be beneficial to the therapeutic process, it is important to be conscious of the animals needs. When working with animals we must be aware of our tendency to project our own thoughts and feelings onto the animals involved. For more information on animal well being please refer to the IAHAIO White Paper. Please also partner with animal related professionals to ensure animal well-being is maintained.

Brennan, J., & Nguyen V. (2014). Service animals and emotional support animals. Service Animals Booklet. Retrieved from
Chambers, B. (2014, May 10). 60 million american birdwatchers chase ever-shrinking quarry. Live Science Retireved from
Chandler, C. K. (2012). Animal assisted therapy in counseling. New York, NY: Routledge
Hart, L. A. (2006). Community context and psychosocial benefits of animal companionship. In A, Fine. Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice, (pp. 73-94). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations (2014). The IAHAIO definitions for animal assisted interventions and guidelines for wellness of animals involved. White Papers.
Kruger, K. A., & Serpell, J. A. (2006). Animal-assisted interventions in mental health: Definitions and theoretical foundations. Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice, 2, 21-38.
U.S. Department of Housing Development. FHEO Notice: FHEO-2013-1. 2013.
U.S. Department of Transportation. 14 CFR Part 382.  Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel. 2013.
National Service Animal Registry. (2016) Therapy animals. Retrieved from
Nimer, J., & Lundahl, B. (2007). Animal-assisted therapy: A meta-analysis.Anthrozoös, 20(3), 225-238.
Wisch, R. (2015). FAQs on emotional support animals. Retrieved from

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