Animal Therapy – Does It Work?

By November 24, 2016News
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Animal therapy is the use of animals as a means of therapeutic relief for a group of individuals. Animal programmes such as this are by no means a modern concept, having even known to have dated back to the 17th century, whereby horseback riding was used as a remedy for neurological disorders and low morale (Hines & Bustad 1986).

L0010457 Florence Nightingale standing with owl Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Florence Nightingale, facing front, standing with owl, Athena. F. Holl after a sketch by N. Parthenope, afterwards Lady Verney, her sister. Lithograph 1855 By: F. HollPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Florence Nightingale standing with Athena the Owl

Developments in this therapy would build over time, for example, in 1859, Florence Nightingale referred to small pets as an incredibly useful means of treatment for the sick. Furthermore, towards the beginning of the 20th century, after the publication of Boris Levinson’s ‘Pet-orientated child psychotherapy’, programmes were being established all over Europe and the USA, hosting a wide variety of treatments within a farm setting (Willis 1997).

In the 1980s, animal-assisted therapy was starting to become implemented amongst a variety of disorders, especially in regards to autistic children and the elderly (Bouchard et al. 2004).

With these groups of people, psychological distress can be a very common occurrence. This distress could be responsible for increasing treatment side effects, thus preventing or delaying any positive results for the patient. In addition, a hospitalised child’s distress may also have a further effect on the distress felt by both family members and caregivers alike (Gagnon et al 2004).

Specialized animal therapy programs are being used to aid people with these disabilities. Both schools and nursing homes are encouraging visiting pets and animals for individual therapy whereby companion animals can provide excitement, focus for caring, and a sense of decreased loneliness and boredom for patients. With these patients having the chance to view, touch and talk to an animal encourages them to deal with the hospital environment in a more positive way. This is because contact with an animals is suggested to increases a sense of physical and emotional well-being (Ruckert, 1994).

This can be corroborated by nursing staff who often Robbie the Rabbit 0173comment on the effectiveness of this therapy (Matuszek 2010). It is also noticed that there is a significant positive response from nurses and teachers, who may not have had the opportunity to get this close, hands-on experience before.

Although the benefits of animal therapy are often considered theory other than fact, with enough future research it could stand as a thorough, cost effective method to help improve the lives of both children, the elderly, and those who care for them.


Bouchard, F., Landry, M., Belles-Illes, M., & Gagnon, J. (2004) . A magical dream; a pilot based project in animal-assisted therapy in paediatric oncology. Canadian Oncology Nursing Journal. Volume 14 (Issue 1) 14-17.

Gagnon, J., Bouchard, F., Landry, M., Belles-Isles, M., Fortier, M., Fillion, L. (2004) Implementing a hospital based animal therapy programme for children with cancer: a descriptive study. Canadian Oncology Nursing Journal. Volume 14 (Issue 4) 217-224.

Matuskek, S. (2010) Animal facilitated therapy in various patient population. Holistic Nursing Practice. 187-203.

Willis, D.A. (1997) Animal Therapy. Rehabilitation Nursing. Volume 22 (Issue 2) 78-81.