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The wonderful world of pet therapy

The wonderful world of pet therapy

- Categories : Behaviour

© Martine Lavallée, BAA and animal health technician

By definition, pet therapy is an intervention that takes place in an individual or group setting, using a carefully selected and trained pet, introduced by a qualified practitioner to a person in order to elicit reactions aimed at maintaining or improving his or her cognitive, physical, psychological or social potential. Pet therapy is not only for people with a particular condition. It is also for those who are going through more difficult moments, whether temporary or permanent, such as people who are bereaved.

Zootherapy is an alternative therapy, assisted by the animal and coordinated by a certified zootherapy practitioner (zootherapist). The animal, controlled by the zootherapist, becomes a therapeutic means and not a therapy in itself, thus allowing contact with the individual who benefits from it. This form of therapy can be found in schools, hospitals, respite centers, speech therapy and occupational therapy clinics, nursing homes, etc. However, pet therapy has been the subject of much criticism due to its lack of methodology and the absence of real empirical studies on its effectiveness.

The objective of zootherapy

To develop, stimulate or maintain the cognitive, physical, psychological and social abilities of clients or patients. It is a multidisciplinary approach that is characterized by its warm, energetic, pleasant and reassuring aspect, because the animal welcomes young and old alike with enthusiasm, breaking down the barriers between the practitioner and the client. In addition to being reassuring, the animal is a great source of motivation.

In order to plan a therapeutic progression, the skilled pet therapist writes a list of specific goals for the patient to achieve and will follow up on a regular basis. For example, the dog could be used in workshops related to cognitive stimulation in a senior population, especially for those suffering from cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, and ask them to perform basic commands to the animal and thus successfully develop their reward reflex. The dog is therefore not the therapist, but an intermediary allowing the well-being of individuals.

Dog in someone's arms

Where does pet therapy come from?

It would be in England, more precisely in 1792, that animals were used for the first time within the framework of a mental improvement in institution. Indeed, Mr. William Tuke, having set up the York Retreat for individuals suffering from mental disorders, proposed that the patients take care of the animals and, in doing so, realized that the individuals at this retreat were capable of taking responsibility for themselves.

In the nineteenth century, Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, also implemented a similar practice in a therapeutic setting using a turtle. She observed a decrease in stress in patients who were in the presence of the animal.

Attentive cat

Later in New York, after World War I, a hospital for traumatized soldiers used dogs as a therapy aid. The dogs appeared to reduce stress and increase the well-being of the hospitalized soldiers.

But modern pet therapy owes its origins to American psychiatrist Boris Levinson, the founding father of pet therapy.  Indeed, in 1953, he made an incredible discovery concerning the usefulness of dogs in therapy.

It was during the visit of an autistic child in his office where his dog Jingles was present that this doctor realized the power of his dog on this child. The child, unable to communicate with the outside world, began to talk to the dog and even asked to come back to see him again because the animal had simply gone towards him to sniff and lick him. The animal, which provides this feeling of unconditional love, does not judge. This is how Pet Facilitated Psychotherapy was born.

The type of animal

Dogs are preferred over all others for individuals with more social difficulties, especially when there is difficulty in making contact with others, for example with the autistic population. But there is no evidence that other types of animals would not facilitate relational development for this population. Other therapists have highlighted the effects of animals on health. For example, petting an animal lowers blood pressure and reduces mortality in heart patients. There is no limit to the type of animal that can be used: dog, cat, chicken, rabbit, hamster, parrot, etc. However, many large animals and some reptiles such as alligators and crocodiles are not easily controlled animals.

A dog in the company of 2 people

In particular, it is important that animals in pet therapy be able to handle a certain level of pressure. We must also take into consideration that our animal partners may be exposed to stressful situations such as seizures or an overdose of cuddles that could be invasive for them. In addition, it is not always easy to stay on top of the therapist's requests and to be attentive to the client's emotional needs without absorbing all that energy. This is why, of course, the pet therapist must ensure the well-being of his furry teammate and give him breaks and play periods to decompress and rest.

For an animal to be accepted in pet therapy, it must have at least the following traits:

  • Enjoy contact with humans and be receptive.
  • Have taken training courses, especially for dogs and even horses, in order to have basic obedience.
  • To have a particular and rigorous medical follow-up, as well as an irreproachable hygiene at all times.
  • Be well socialized, so it must not be aggressive or fearful, nor impulsive or stressed.
  • Be mentally stable and calm no matter what the situation is.
A pig with a woman

Some benefits of pet therapy

  • Improve perception in space and time;
  • Alleviate the feeling of uneasiness in the case of depression;
  • Create a sense of responsibility;
  • Develop and structure thought;
  • Develop an interest in life in general;
  • Avoiding withdrawal, especially for people in a state of sensory deprivation;
  • Promote or reactivate communication;
  • Reactivate memory;
  • Recovering different emotions;
  • To break with loneliness;
  • Stimulate the intellect and self-esteem.

For more information, visit the Centre de zoothérapie communautaire de Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts (

Sources :

  • Jessica Jennings-Forget; Zootherapist and Language Stimulation Officer in
  • Zoothérapie: quand animal et personnes âgées font bon ménage par Maxime Coursol
  • Animaux : quand ils deviennent des thérapeutes par Anne Lefèvre-Balleydier

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