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By © Martine Lavallée BAA & TSA

By definition, pet therapy is “ … an approach that uses the presence of an animal to help people with various difficulties improve their condition or increase their quality of life and comfort.”[I] Pet therapy is an alternative therapy, assisted by the animal and coordinated by a trained animal therapist (zoo therapist). The animal, controlled by the zoo therapist, becomes a therapeutic means and not a therapy in itself allowing to get in touch with the individual who benefits. This form of therapy can be found in schools, hospitals, respite centres, speech therapy and occupational therapy clinics, CHSLD’s, etc. However, pet therapy is the subject to a number of criticisms related to its lack of methodology, and in the absence of real empirical studies in terms of its effectiveness.


Pet Therapy Goal

Develop, stimulate or maintain the cognitive, physical, psychological and social abilities of clients or patients. It is a multidisciplinary approach that is distinguished by its warm, energetic, pleasant and reassuring aspect because the animal welcomes children and adults alike by breaking down the barriers between the worker and his client. In addition to being reassuring, the animal is a great source of motivation. In order to plan a therapeutic progression, the competent zoo therapist prepares a list of specific objectives to be achieved for the patient and will make a follow-up on a regular basis. For example, the dog could be used in workshops related to cognitive stimulation in a population of seniors, especially for those with cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, by asking them to make basic orders to the animal and thus develop their reward reflex successfully. The dog is not the therapist, but an intermediary for the well-being of individuals.


Where does pet therapy come from?

It would be in England, more precisely in 1792, that the animals were used for the first time as part of a mental improvement in an institution. Indeed, Mr. William Tuke having set up the York Retreat for individuals with mental disorders, proposed that the patients take care of animal housing and getting themselves, realized that the individuals of this retreat, were able to take responsibility.

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

Later in New York, after the First World War, a hospital for traumatized soldiers resorted to dogs as aids to therapy. Dogs seemed to reduce stress and increase the well-being of hospitalized soldiers.

But we owe modern pet therapy to the American psychiatrist Boris Levinson, founding father of pet therapy. In fact, 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 latter, who was unable to communicate with the outside world, began to talk with the dog and even asked to come back to see him again because the animal had simply gone to him to sniff and lick him. The animal, which provides this feeling of unconditional love, does not judge. Thus was born the Pet Facilitated Psychotherapy.


Animal Type

Dogs are preferred among all those with more social difficulties, especially when there is a difficulty in contact with others such as the autistic population. But there is no evidence that other types of animals would fail to facilitate relationship development for this part of the population. Other therapists have highlighted the effects of the animal on health. Thus, petting an animal lowers blood pressure and decreases mortality in cardiac patients. There is no limit to the type of animal that can be used: dog, cat, hen, rabbit, hamster, parrot, etc. However, many large animals and some alligator or crocodile reptiles are not easily controllable animals.

It is especially important that pet therapy animals should know how to handle a certain level of pressure. It must also be taken into consideration that our animal partners may be exposed to stressful situations such as seizures or an overdose of hugs that could be invasive for him. 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 this energy. That is why, obviously, the therapist must make sure of the well-being of his team-mate and give him breaks and periods of games to decompress and rest.

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

  •  Love contact with humans and be receptive.
  • Have attended training classes, especially for the dog and even horses, to have basic obedience.
  • Have a particular and rigorous medical follow-up, as well as an irreproachable hygiene at all times.
  • Be well socialized, so it should not be aggressive, fearful, impulsive or stressed.
  • Be mentally stable and calm no matter what situation is present to him.


Some benefits of pet therapy

  • Improve perception in space and time;
  • Alleviate the impression of unhappiness in the case of depression;
  • Create a sense of responsibility
  • Develop and structure thought
  • Raise interest in life in general
  • Avoid withdrawal, especially for people in a state of sensory deprivation;
  • Reactivate the memory;
  • Find different emotions;
  • To break with loneliness;
  • Stimulate intellect and self-esteem.

For more information, visit the Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts Community Animal Therapy Center (

[i] Citation of

Other sources :

-Jessica Jennings-Forget; Zoothérapeute et Agente en stimulation du langage dans

-Zoothérapie: quand animal et personnes âgées font bon ménage par Maxime Courso

-Animaux : quand ils deviennent des thérapeutes par Anne Lefèvre-Balleydier

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