There are a number of ways in which people refer to the inclusion of animals in therapeutic practice.

The definition adopted by SCAS is:

Animal-assisted Interventions: Any intervention that intentionally includes or incorporates animals as part of a therapeutic or ameliorative process of milieu (Kruger and Serpell, 2006).

AAI includes ‘animal-assisted activities’ (AAA) and ‘animal-assisted therapy’ (AAT). Many people working in the field adopt the Delta Society (now Pet Partners) definitions to differentiate between these two approaches:

Animal-assisted activities:  “provide opportunities for motivational, educational, recreational and/or therapeutic benefits to enhance quality of life.  AAA’s are delivered in a variety of environments by paraprofessionals and/or volunteers in association with animals that meet specific criteria.  Interactions are spontaneous and there is no requirement to document or evaluate”.

Animal-assisted therapy: “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 specialised expertise and within the scope of practice of his/her profession.  Outcomes are documented, measured and evaluated.”

The approach that is adopted for a programme will depend on whether it is:

  • Goal-directed or spontaneous;
  • Delivered by a trained health care professional (eg counsellor, occupational therapist) or a volunteer;
  • Documented, evaluated and measured.

Animal-assisted interventions can be traced back many hundreds of years.  For example:

  • The Ancient Greeks kept dogs in their healing temples and advocated horseback riding for people suffering from depression (known then as ‘melanchology’) and to lift the spirits of people who were terminally ill.
  • The first recorded introduction of companion animals to an institution in the UK was at the York retreat, an innovative psychiatric institution established in 1796.
  • The therapeutic value of companion animals was also recognised by Florence Nightingale

Today, many diverse programmes exist which take the form of AAI or AAT.  It is a rapidly growing and exciting area of study and practice.