Emotional Support/Therapy Animals

Person with short hair wearing oxford shirt and jeans begins to get up with assistance from cane while therapy dog sits on lapA therapy animal, also known as an emotional support animal, companion animal, or service animal, is any animal trained to aid an individual’s well-being and overall health. A therapy animal might be a service animal, but the term “service animal” typically refers to animals that have received more specific training to assist with a wide variety of physical and mental health issues of varying severity.

Most therapy animals are trained for the purpose of being present with their owner at all times, even (or especially) in public spaces where an individual’s health might be more of a concern.

How Can Emotional Support Animals Help?

Animals, especially domesticated dogs and cats, are particularly attuned to humans’ physical and emotional needs. Even pets not trained as emotional support animals can often tell when someone is agitated or upset and will seek to calm the person by nudging or licking them. Therapy animals are particularly sensitive to changes in human emotions or health states; some can even sense an oncoming seizure in someone with epilepsy or detect hypoglycemia in someone with diabetes and remind them to take insulin.

In terms of mental health, therapy animals can help:

Pet ownership alone is likely to improve health, even when the animal is not trained to provide emotional support.

Enlisting the help of a therapy animal may also be beneficial to the animal. In a study of children’s interactions with dogs, both the children and the dogs showed a decrease in blood pressure and a heightening of neurochemicals associated with attention-seeking behavior.

What Types of Therapy Animals Are There?

Dogs are the most popular type of therapy animal, both because they are relatively easy to acquire and generally respond well to training. Dogs are extremely people-oriented and are therefore naturally attuned to humans’ needs and emotions. Additionally, because of anti-discrimination laws pertaining to individuals with disabilities, dogs are already included by definition in most provisions related to service animals and can accompany their owners almost anywhere.

Other animals, such as cats, rabbits, rats, hamsters, and birds, can also be effective emotional support animals, especially for children. Horses, too, are consistently confirmed as effective therapy animals; however, they are generally less suitable as pets. If you’re interested in experiencing equine therapy or another type of animal-assisted therapy (AAT), talk to your mental health professional for recommendations in your area or search online for local organizations that offer AAT. Look for opportunities with animals approved for such use and trained mental health professionals who have experience in providing AAT.

Therapy Animal Laws and Legislation

In most cases, laws specifically address the use of therapy dogs and do not mention service animals of other varieties. In the United States, all states have a provision by law protecting people with therapy dogs from discrimination. Individual states differ on their approach to their rights, as do other countries. For example, in some areas people might be barred from entering a zoo with a service animal. Other provisions might apply only to guide dogs for those with hearing or visual impairments.

To learn more about your rights with a support animal, please research specific laws in your state or country. Sites like Assistance Dogs International provide resources for people looking for this and related information.

Is a Therapy Animal Right for You?

Acquiring, raising, or training a therapy animal should not be a decision one makes lightly. As much as one might desire the constant company of a therapy pet, not everyone is ready or equipped for the responsibility such ownership entails. If you’re unsure whether getting an animal is the right move for you, try to experience individual aspects of pet ownership and animal therapy first. For example, you could spend a week or month at a time fostering a pet as a shorter-term commitment.

It is also a good idea to first experience animal-assisted therapy with a therapist trained in this modality. You can find individual therapists, treatment centers, and therapy groups that incorporate various types of animals into the therapeutic process. Experimenting with this therapy is an excellent way to explore how you personally respond to interactions with therapy animals.

Some organizations exist to train therapy animals, particularly dogs, and then match each dog with someone in the area in need of a pet for emotional support. If you do not have the resources or connections to pursue training a service animal yourself or with a team of people, you might consider looking for a group that rescues dogs and trains them for you. Depending on your needs, you might find one that serves particular mental health issues–for example, a nonprofit that provides veterans with dogs sensitive to PTSD symptoms.

It’s generally best to consult with a mental health professional as you consider getting a therapy animal of your own. A psychotherapist can help you ensure you are making a decision that furthers your mental health. If possible, involve your therapist in the training process, or request a referral for a mental health professional who is trained in facilitating the therapeutic bonding process between an individual and the new animal.

Just as humans do, animals deserve attention, care, and a lifestyle that prioritizes their optimal health. Before you consider whether it is ideal to add an animal to your life, it’s a good idea to seriously evaluate whether you will be able to devote the time, energy, financial resources, and attention to training the animal and caring for it for years to come.


  1. Banks, M. R., & Banks, W. A. (2002). The effects of animal-assisted therapy on loneliness in an elderly population in long-term care facilities. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 57(7), M428-M432. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/biomedgerontology/article/57/7/M428/553460
  2. Barker, S. B. (1999). Therapeutic aspects of the human-companion animal interaction. Psychiatric Times, 16(2), 45-46. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
  3. Guide to assistance dog laws. (2006). Assistance Dogs International. Retrieved from http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/ADI20062ndprint.pdf
  4. Hardin, D. S., Anderson, W., & Cattet, J. (2015). Dogs can be successfully trained to alert to hypoglycemia samples from patients with type 1 diabetes. Diabetes Therapy, 6(4), 509-517. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13300-015-0135-x
  5. Odendaal, J. S. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy—magic or medicine?. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 49(4), 275-280. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022399900001835
  6. Wells, D. L. (2007). Domestic dogs and human health: An overview. British Journal of Health Psychology, 12(1), 145-156. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1348/135910706X103284/full

Last Updated: 12-12-2017

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