Therapy Animals- and the Questions Surrounding Them

»»Therapy Animals- and the Questions Surrounding Them

Common and Unusual Therapy Animals

We all know about service dogs. We are taught about service dogs, such as seeing eye dogs in school, about how they help their human companion and how we should behave and interact around them. Service animals are allowed almost anywhere, in stores, malls, and stadiums, and are also granted access to facilities like apartments that may otherwise not allow regular pets to attend. The general public is fully aware and usually understanding of these animals, and their allowances based on the rights of the disabled. There is a generally clear laws regarding such animals and their purpose.

But, what about other animals- those animals that are not tradition “service” animals? How do we address the needs of people who do not fall under the traditional disability laws and the animals who accompany them? What accommodations are available for therapy animals?

What do we do when the therapy animals or emotional support animals aren’t your traditional service dog?

According to Wikipedia, the definition of a therapy animal (which automatically redirects to or assumes is a canine) is “A therapy dog is a dog that might be trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with autism. Therapy dogs are usually not assistance or service dogs, but can be one or both with some organizations.”

What is not covered in that definition is the wide range of other animals that are used to accompany people with a variety of conditions, such as depression and social anxiety. The use of therapy animals for company and comfort (and obviously, part of therapy) is on the rise, and with it, comes legal challenges as how to include different animals and allow for the use of animals to make life easier for those with differing abilities.

Types of Therapy Animals


dog, therapy animal,

Dogs are well know for their companionship and their therapeutic effects. Dogs are allowed in some hospitals and nursing homes to calm patients. Therapy dogs for anxiety are quite common. They are even part of library programs to relax children as they overcome their fear of reading aloud. Many of these can be traditionally trained service dogs, but others can be just well trained canines who take a fondness to humans and assist in ways they may never know.


cat, kitten therapy cat

Cats are also well known to have therapeutic effects in many of the same ways as dogs. Having a cat purring in your lap reduces stress and anxiety, lowers cholesterol, and reduces the risks of strokes and heart attacks. We can’t easily pack up our cat and take it to the grocery store, but having a pet cat at home can provide a wide range of benefits for its human companion. Are cats a therapeutic animal? Many would say so. What about for travel? Would having your cat along help one of the most stressful and anxiety causing events- air travel? What about students living in dorms? We work along side out pets at home- would a cat in the dorm provide health benefits for a student living in dorms?

It only gets more complicated as we get to increasingly uncommon animals.


Horses are also well known for their therapeutic effects, especially with patients with disabilities, trauma such as PTSD, and behavioral difficulties such as autism and ADHD. Many equine centers specialize in helping people with a variety of issues through the calming effect of equine companionship. But, we all do not have the space for a horse or the ability to care for one. Should equine therapy be covered under medical insurance? How do you define what needs are most effectively addressed by horses in a field that is still under research?

The questions continue as do the legal challenges. We’ve found many stories of many animals, but we will touch on a few.


We found this article (here) of a man who has added to his depression and PTSD treatment by raising ducks. 14 of them. In an area not zoned for duck ownership. He claims the ducks are relaxing and help in his daily life, and we have no doubt about that. There isn’t much more peaceful sounding that watching a pond full of ducks on a spring day. But does he have a legal case? If he has the land and the ability to care for the ducks and they meet pet care requirements, should the district make an exception for water fowl ownership? Therapy animals regulations can be can be difficult to get around… and that’s even before we get to the more unusual animals…

Pigs, Llamas, and Iguanas

In the same article, there is a reference to llamas, as a therapy companion to an elderly woman. One reader has reported seeing a pig on a leash at a local Starbucks. And, it isn’t completely unheard of to see an Iguana or other lizard on a shoulder of a passerby at the grocery story. Normal pets? Therapy animals? And more importantly, who has the authority to question the health and privacy of a customer in a store space?

More Questions Than Answers

This article doesn’t even attempt to answer the questions it’s asking. We’re simply asking. As we come together to be more open about “invisible” diseases and conditions, will we be more accepting of seeing unusual pets in public? And if so, how do we go about that in a way that is safe for the animals, their owners, and the other citizens? What training, requirements, or regulations are needed in order to ensure the safety of all involved?

We’d love to hear from our readers. Do you have experience with a therapy animal? Has an animal had a therapeutic effect on you- even if it’s merely anecdotal? What suggestions do you have to help include therapy animals in the public arena?

We think the topic will be increasingly approached and discussed in the future. And here, at AnimalPlex, we would love to hear your success stories, so let us know what you or your city is doing to make your community more therapy animal friendly!

About the Author:

Leave A Comment