Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)

The formal definition of animal-assisted therapy is:

"AAT is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession.

AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning [cognitive functioning refers to thinking and intellectual skills]. AAT is provided in a variety of settings and may be group or individual in nature. This process is documented and evaluated." (From Standards of Practice for Animal-Assisted Activities and Therapy)

The Key Features of AAT:

  • There are specified goals and objectives for each individual.
  • Progress is measured.

Examples of AAT:

  • A volunteer brings her cat to a rehabilitation center to work with an occupational therapist and a child who has difficulty controlling fine motor skills. To improve the client’s fine motor skills, the therapist has the child manipulate buckles, clasps on leashes, collars, and animal carriers. The child also opens containers of treats for the cat and feeds small pieces of food to the cat. In an animal-assisted therapy session designed to improve a client’s ability to sequence events, i.e. a therapist teaches a client the steps of brushing a dog. Motivated by the opportunity to brush the dog himself, the client remembers the steps, and the therapist has the client recite the order of events aloud as he goes through the actual sequence.
  • A woman recovering from a stroke has limited standing and walking tolerance. A physical therapist uses the presence of a dog to motivate the client by placing the dog on a raised table and asking the client to stand while stroking or brushing the animal’s back and head. To increase the client’s ambulation skills, the therapist has the client walk the dog for short distances around the facility grounds. (The handler uses a double lead and walks alongside the dog and client.)

Goals of AAT Programs

Animals can be incorporated into a variety of programs. If you become involved in an AAT program, ask the treatment provider to explain the person's goals to you. The following are some examples of AAT goals:

Improve fine motor skills.
Improve wheelchair skills.
Improve standing balance.
Mental Health.
Increase verbal interactions between group members.
Increase attention skills (i.e., paying attention, staying on task).
Develop leisure/recreation skills.
Increase self-esteem.
Reduce anxiety.
Reduce loneliness.
Increase vocabulary. Aid in long- or short-term memory.
Improve knowledge of concepts such as size, color, etc.
Improve willingness to be involved in a group activity.
Improve interactions with others.
Improve interactions with staff.
Increase exercise.


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