What is Pet Therapy or Zootherapy: benefits

The pet therapy is a co-therapy officially born in the United States in the 60’s based on the benefits from the relationship Man-Animal. Pet Therapy complements and does not replace a traditional medical therapy.

The pet therapy has led an interaction between a person and a trained animal, whose aim is to help this person overcome a health problem or mental disorder.

The pet therapy therefore allows the animals to become doctors, or even better  human therapists . Many species can help us: dogs, cats, goldfish, hamsters and many other small pets to keep at home. But even more challenging like horses and dolphins are also used for pet therapy.

Dogs and cats are the most commonly used animals in pet therapy. The type of animal chosen depends on the therapeutic goals in treating a person’s disorder.

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What is Pet Therapy?

The pet therapy  or therapy for animals , also called Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), designates a therapeutic practice cake that exploits the benefits of the interaction between humans and pets. This interaction, in fact, is able to stimulate the emotional sphere of the individual, favoring the opening towards the outside world and promoting new communication strategies. The term pet therapy was used for the first time in the sixties by the American psychiatrist Boris Levinson , who had noticed the beneficial effect that his dog Jingles produced on an autistic patient.    

Pet therapy is a therapeutic practice that uses pets (and not only) to improve the psycho-physical well-being of individuals. Generally speaking, it is able to break silence and promote positive thinking: basing itself on a basic and repetitive language, it exerts a calming and reassuring effect on the speaker. The therapeutic use of pets, in particular, can be very useful for those affected by depression : the animals, in fact, produce a series of useful stimulations to break the vicious circles typical of the depressed, offering them ideas to get out of isolation. and to gradually improve mood. The benefits of pet therapy are also effective in people with Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, it has been shown that pets are able to improve the behavioral and cognitive parameters of Alzheimer’s patients, hospitalized in special health facilities.

The term “Pet therapy” includes a heterogeneous group of activities:

1. Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) – Activities aimed at a wide audience with or without specific problems. They are usually group play-recreational activities in which operators, conductor and animal offer emotional-affective support to users.
2. Animal Assisted Education (AAE) – Education activities to respect animal diversity. They are often implemented in schools of all types and levels but also in educational farms, agritourisms and farms.
3. Animal Assisted Therapies (AAT) – Therapeutic activities aimed at people of all ages with pathologies of all kinds: physical, psychological, psychiatric, chronic or episodic. The therapeutic setting can be the patient’s home, nursing homes, RSA, RSSA, hospitals and clinics.

Following Animals are used for this Pet Therapy:

  1. cats, (cat therapy)
  2. trained dogs (dog therapy)
  3. onotherapy or pet therapy with donkeys;
  4. horse therapy;
  5. the rabbits.

Why is Pet Therapy Effective?


Pet therapy bases its effectiveness on the concept of the Human-Animal relationship, a relationship as old as the life of a human being on Earth. The relationship between the user and the animal becomes therapeutic as an effective communication vehicle between the two interlocutors. 

It is therefore very important that this “dialogue” is correctly directed both by the medical staff who are taking care of the person and by the handler of the animal in question, a technician suitably prepared for the meeting with all types of users. 

The benefits of Pet Therapy are both physical and psychological and derive from the relationship that is established between animal and person: the empathy that is created, in a completely natural way, generates positive effects on the protagonists.  

Why does this happen? Entering into a relationship with animals is often easy even for those who, in everyday life, struggle to relate to their fellow men. Animals give themselves completely, they don’t judge, they don’t reject, they don’t have prejudices and they bring a consistent energetic charge, thus opening the spaces of a spontaneous, affectionate, funny and delicate relationship. 
In the moment of play or cuddle …

  • the person’s heart rate decreases 
  • adrenaline and dopamine levels rise, with positive effects on mood and psychological state
  • anxieties and fears diminish
  • stimuli for movement increase and a sedentary lifestyle is reduced

Taking care of an animal or even just receiving its attention also increases self-esteem and a sense of responsibility.

These benefits also last longer than the positive effects of other similar activities.

Pet therapy was born from the intuition of child neuropsychiatrist Boris Levinson who noticed how the interaction between his dog and his little autistic patient was easier and more spontaneous than that between the child and his therapist. Levinson then called the dog “co-therapist” as a facilitator and mediator of curative, effective, fruitful and positive relationships. 

Since then Levinson has carried out numerous studies on the therapeutic power of the relationship between Man and Animal and opened the doors to a series of co-therapies based on this (hippotherapy, onotherapy, dolphin therapy and others).

Who can take Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy benefits everyone! It is aimed both at people of all ages without a specific pathology and at people of all ages with various pathologies. 

Pet therapy is not aimed only at children but also at adults and the elderly. Pet therapy is frequently applied in case of such as autism, ADHD, specific learning disorders, infantile cerebral palsy, physical and mental delays, m Parkinson’s, m. Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, motor coordination disorders, proprioceptive and exteroceptive disorders, disorders of the affective sphere, depression, eating disorders.

The origins of pet therapy:

If pet therapy has been a phenomenon that has been studied for several decades, in truth, by carefully retracing ancient history, there are clear traces of an important role that man gave to animals.

We think of cats for the ancient Egyptians, the depictions of the god Anubis and the depictions of some Christian saints often represented with animals close to them, such as San Rocco and Sant’Antonio . But if we wanted to, we could get lost in the mists of time.

Since ancient times it has been observed how the proximity of an animal reassures the human being. Especially for elderly and lonely people, having an animal as a company and as a thought to look after removes loneliness.

The actual Pet Therapy , literally therapy with puppies, has been studied for several decades. The development of pet therapy as we know it today has had a strong boost in the United States since the 1970s. In Italy it has been practiced since the 90s in the wake of the success it had in America.

Clearly, in recent decades, modern methodology has come to address this type of therapy more scientifically. Both animals and their managers must be properly trained and trained to interact properly.

What are the Benefits of pet therapy?

The benefits of pet therapy are numerous, as demonstrated by various scientific research in the field. In particular, the interaction with a companion animal would be able to:

The pet therapy has had proven results in the treatment of behavioral disorders and autism in children in rehabilitation after severe trauma.

In these cases, in fact, the patient in contact with the animal interacts with it by giving it care, for example by brushing the dog’s fur, or by pulling objects that the dog brings back, or by giving it commands, the animal’s responses stimulate the patient’s reaction .

  • lower blood pressure and regularize heart rate;
  • improve the psychological well-being of the individual, as the playful relationship with the pet allows you to release tensions and promote positive thinking;
  • effectively counteract loneliness and the sense of alienation;
  • reduce the level of stress, as simple and authentic communication with the animal produces a relaxing effect;
  • increase the sense of responsibility, as the relationship with a pet implies a commitment to take care of him;
  • foster empathic feeling, as the animal is able to communicate on a deeper level with the human being;
  • overcome self-centeredness and foster a sense of communion with nature and the animal world.

Contact with animals is a therapy for depression in the elderly and for cardio-circulatory disorders , it has been proven in several studies conducted in nursing homes that contact with the animal raises the morale of the elderly, reduces the pressure of the blood and heartbeat .

Even in diseases such as cancer, leukemia and coronary heart disease , pet therapy has given positive results.

Benefits for Pet therapy for Children:

Having a positive relationship with a pet can be very important for a child’s cognitive and emotional development. This practice, in fact, allows him to develop new and more effective learning skills and, at the same time, to learn to take care of a creature other than himself. On the other hand, it has been shown that proximity to a pet favors creativity and observation skills in children. A path of education and rehabilitation with pet therapy, moreover, can prove to be fundamental for children with disabilities: thanks to the authentic and unconditional emotional relationship with the animal, in fact, the child can find the strength and motivation necessary to deal with new enthusiasm for small everyday problems.  

Benefits of Pet therapy for elderly

Pets are also able to improve the quality of life of elderly people: thanks to play and care it is in fact possible to regain one’s emotional stability, happiness and good humor. It is no coincidence that today there are many rest homes that have opened their doors to dogs and cats: if once the elderly took care of children and grandchildren, today they take care of pets.

Benefits of Pet therapy for the autistic

In people with autism and who have been involved in a therapeutic program based on the interaction with a pet, there was a significant improvement in attention and greater mastery in controlling their body. This is an immense achievement for this category of patients, who are generally unable to concentrate and make impromptu and violent movements that they are unable to manage.

The presence of pets in the life of an Alzheimer’s patient actively and positively stimulates certain cognitive, sensory and behavioral parameters.

The patient establishes a relationship with the animal by caring for it, caressing it and this relationship anchors the subject to the here and now and often evokes pleasant memories in him, improving the mood. 

Pet Therapy: Lowering the level of anxiety and tension

It has been shown that the presence of a pet not only improves the behavior of certain patients, but that, in general, it contributes to the lowering of anxiety and tension in the people who benefit from it. All of this has been scientifically proven. In fact, it has been seen how children who face the first blood sampling with an animal next to them show a regular heartbeat , stable blood pressure and greater blood oxygenation . These factors reveal how the patients experienced anxiety and stress, but were relaxed during the normal medical procedure.

For this reason the animals are used in the so-called assisted activities (AAA), to try to reduce the negative moods that naturally arise from hospitalization and to prevent the appearance of depression and restlessness .

Pet Therapy increases Self-confidence

Finally, the relationship between man and animal plays a fundamental role in terms of self-esteem . It was demonstrating how this interaction can become a means for some patients to relive and deal with traumatic events and stimulate reflections on important concepts , such as trust and respect for oneself and for others . There have been many positive results in this regard especially with teenagers .

Furthermore, since the IAA always bring progress , perhaps not immediate but still visible over time, users are the first to recognize improvements in their skills and all this directly affects self-esteem.

Pet Therapy increases body control

We have said how pet therapy does not only act at the level of mental health, but also in favor of physical well-being . Sessions of this type are proposed to children or patients with disabilities and motor difficulties , which may concern the movement of the limbs, balance and coordination . For example, command or agility activities with dogs are very useful for improving spatial-temporal orientation skills : by observing how the animal moves in open space, the user learns to perform the movements correctly and all exercises concerning the control and direction of the dog.

Dogs, however, aren’t the only ones who benefit from this. We have already mentioned hippotherapy , which can be from the ground and “in the saddle”, where children and the disabled become aware of their body by following the movements of the horse, or there is dolphin therapy with games in the pool with dolphins.

Pet Therapy Improves of the relationship between patient and therapist

Especially in the case of users with psychiatric disorders, pet therapy helps to lower the patient’s level of apprehension towards their therapist . In fact, one of the aims of these assisted interventions is to change the relational style . People who suffer from autism or who have other related diseases change their behavior in the presence of the pet. Experts explained that this improvement occurs because the patient feels almost obliged to take care of the dog, cat or any other animal he has around him. Thus, there is an increase in the sense of responsibility and a greater openness towards the therapist.

In this regard, pet therapy can also be used during visits between doctors and cancer patients . Several studies have shown how the relationship that is established between the sick and the animal favors communication with professionals and thus involvement in treatment therapy .

How does Pet Therapy work:

We must start from the assumption that the animal-patient relationship is based on the total absence of prejudices and on a deep emotional bond, which reassures, increases self-esteem and favors social relationships. In other words, the pet stimulates the patient’s positive energies and makes the discomfort, be it physical or mental, more acceptable to him.

The State Regions Conference approved the Agreement and the national guidelines for pet therapy and animal assisted interventions , which provide for the same rules throughout the country and establish the reference quality standards for the correct application of this support therapy, at the aim to protect both patients and pets.

The specialists

The specialists who deal with pet therapy are the psychologist and, sometimes, even the psychiatrist. However, it is not excluded that this discipline, which is becoming increasingly popular, will give birth to a new professional figure (the specialist in pet therapy). 

With what concrete objectives is pet therapy used?

These are the goals for which this type of therapy is commonly used.

  • improve fine motor skills and joint movement.
  • motivate the patient to move / exercise.
  • increase self-esteem.
  • stimulate verbal communication and social interactions.
  • improve interactions with others.

Basically, pet therapy can help make the patient happier and less stressed , defending him from depression . It can help us form a more positive outlook on life, fighting isolation and reducing anxiety.

In particular, for children it can help to develop empathy towards others and can also make the relationship with other medical therapies (eg chemotherapy) less difficult or more approachable.

Which dogs are best suited for Pet Therapy?

Among the various dog breeds , there are several potentially suitable for pet therapy. But it is difficult to make a generalized speech. As is inevitable, individual factors come into play here, relating to the type of disorder suffered.

In principle it is possible to say that:

  • for motor or sensory problems , where it is necessary that the dog is able to offer concrete support to mobility and has certain physical qualities, the Golden Retriever , the Labrador, Beagle and above all the German Shepherd are particularly suitable . Their ductility and ability to learn is the other aspect that makes them prefer in this sense.
  • for terminal or disabling diseases , the behavioral and psychological characteristics of the dog are fundamental. A psychologically stable dog represents a very useful foothold to recover precious positivity. An affectionate, yet discreet dog is ideal. Here too shepherd dogs do very well, especially a dog like the Bernese Mountain Dog , affectionate and gentle.
  • for mental problems , such as anxiety , depression , panic attacks and in general mental distress, the presence of a dog that is able to establish a bond with the person is fundamental. A bond that is not only emotional, but also physical. A pet-friendly dog ​​is ideal in these circumstances. Smaller dogs, such as the Jack Russell Terrier , the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel , the Shih-tzu , the French Bulldog  or the Poodle are also suitable here . Among the medium to large dogs, we would still feel like including him, the Labrador and especially the Golden Retriever.

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Who is pet therapy aimed at?  

Everyone is benefited by pet therapy.

Pet therapy is particular more effective to children with specific physical or mental disability problems, certain categories of sick people and the elderly.

Which animals are suitable for pet therapy?

Current regulations and scientific literature identify dogs, horses, rabbits and cats as animals suitable for pet therapy. 

Dogs and horses are certainly the most used animals in Pet Therapy , to a lesser extent – and with particular objectives – cats and rabbits can also be used.

Pet Therapy with Dogs:

Dogs are certainly the most versatile and their most significant qualities: ability to interact with humans, great adaptability, intelligence and sensitivity make these animals able to perform sophisticated and very delicate tasks.

There is no ideal dog that can be used in all situations , but there are requirements that must be evaluated to understand if a subject can be used for assisted activities or therapies.

The most suitable dog is the one well socialized , polite, calm, balanced, used to living in an urban environment and in close contact with people.

The expert dog trainer will work on this basis for the specific and diversified preparation according to the task that the animal will perform.

Size, breed, coat and sex are not exclusion or choice criteria, first of all the objective must be identified: some breeds, such as Golden and Labrador retrievers, are more represented as Pet Therapy dog ​​or service dogs , but also a terrier or a half-breed can be much more useful in carrying out specific tasks, such as hearing dogs, dogs for the deaf.

The specific training is started no earlier than 13-15 months of age , because the puppies and puppies are not yet physically and psychologically ready to face a demanding and sometimes stressful path.

Genealogy is extremely important: an animal with healthy ancestors, both physically and mentally, already starts with the best conditions in the selection of the dog to be used in this field.

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Pet Therapy with Horses:

This mindset must also be followed for horses used in hippotherapy : the idea and practice of using adult or elderly horses, used and exploited for a long time for other jobs and “recycled” finally for activities with rehabilitation objectives, must be extinguished.

The horse must meet very specific criteria of physical conformation (brachymorphs or mesomorphs), temperament and health (starting from the perpendicular).

The contact with the horse is tactile and motor, as well as obviously understanding and affective bond: the motor or psychic disabled receives numerous stimulations from this animal: from the warmth to the softness of a caress, up to the propioceptive stimulations and adaptation to movement in the saddle thanks to the regular, straight, tilting and slightly oscillatory gait obtained during the natural gaits of the horse.

It is therefore clear that in a horse problems of lameness, gait due to physical defects or misalignment of the hoof, can create major problems or in any case nullify the benefits of mediated therapy with the animal which is not a simple aid or a means but an indispensable subject.

What are the benefits of having a pet at home?

Having a pet in the house is a benefit for the whole family . Having a dog or a cat helps children to be responsible; moreover, a pet is also a good friend who teaches them to believe in themselves. Read More here…

Who should not take pet therapy:

Not everyone can take pet therapy. Following are the reasons to not participate in pet therapy:

  • Those who suffer from a specific allergy to pet hair cannot take part in pet therapy activities (dog hair rarely gives allergy while cat hair allergy is frequent, so the subject is allergic to cat hair, under medical advice, could instead take part in activities with the dog). 
  • Another contraindication to pet therapy is the phobia towards the specific animal

What are Pet Therapy specialists:

Pet therapy specialists are part of an organized and structured team that evaluates the best approach to use with the patient, in full respect of animal health and welfare. The team is therefore multidisciplinary and includes figures such as the doctor, the veterinarian, the dog trainer and the dog trainer, the psychologist, the physiotherapist, the speech therapist, the nurse, the professional educator and the teacher. Depending on the type of user, these specialists will plan and organize the modalities of therapeutic intervention.

How does Pet Therapy help people with Alzheimer

The Pet Therapy brings many benefits to people with Alzheimer’s , especially in the early stages of the disease. The presence of an animal in the daily life of a patient with Alzheimer’s in particular:

  • stimulates the patient’s motor ability 
  • arouses their interest
  • improves depressive symptoms
  • reduces agitation and aggression
  • stimulates attention
  • increases the sense of responsibility
  • strengthens self-esteem

Continuous scientific research shows how much this non-pharmacological therapy is functional to counteract the progress of the disease, especially when applied together with other activities, such as music therapy or physical exercise. 

By taking care of the animal, taking it on a leash, giving it food and brushing its fur, the Alzheimer’s patient enters into a positive and nourishing relationship, a source of physical and emotional well-being. The only condition: that the animal (almost always a dog) is adequately prepared, through a course of specialization.

Pet therapy and Animal Welfare

In order for the Human-Animal relationship to give its best results, it is essential that the animal co-therapist experiences this relationship as a game and an enrichment of his own knowledge base. For this reason it is very important the adherence of the training structures and of the handler himself to standard principles.

The animal must be constantly monitored by a veterinarian who certifies its health and physical fitness (for its well-being but also for that of users) and from a behavioral veterinarian who certifies their cognitive-behavioral suitability. The animal must in no way be trained with coercive means but with gentle methods that take into account animal diversity

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