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The “Right Stuff”: Would Your Pet Make a Good Therapy Animal? Part I

Did you know that there are nine species that can be registered as therapy animals? They include dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, certain birds, miniature horses, alpacas/llamas, and potbellied pigs.


What is a therapy animal exactly? There are many terms used today that can be confusing when differentiating between the jobs animals do. Listed below are some simple definitions of the official terms used.

Therapy Animal – A therapy animal is a well-trained pet (one of the nine species listed above) that has passed an in-person standardized test with their handler to qualify for insurance (up to 2 million dollars per incident) with one of the three national groups listed below:

  1. Pet Partners (will register nine different species)
  2. Therapy Dogs International (registers only dogs)
  3. Alliance of Therapy Dogs (registers only dogs)

Therapy animals are volunteers that visit in the community at a variety of venues such as hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, and schools.  A team, which consists of a handler and an animal, must be invited to visit at a facility and does not have any special rights to access.

Service Animal – According to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), service animals are defined as dogs (and in some cases, miniature horses) that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”  In accordance with the ADA, service animals may accompany a person with a disability almost anywhere the general public may go.  They may also be called Assistance Dogs.

Emotional Support Animal – An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is a pet that provides therapeutic support to someone with a mental health diagnosis.  These animals may or may not have any training and can be a variety of species. ESAs do not have special rights to access, but they do have some legal rights under the Air Carrier Access Act and the Fair Housing Act. The pet must be prescribed in a letter by the mental health professional who is providing services.

Note:  For more information on service or ESA animals, visit the ADA website here

Comfort Dogs – These are dogs and handlers that have special training to work in emergency situations. The dogs provide a calming presence during or after a crisis. Some examples might be natural disasters, school shootings, etc. Learn more here.

Therapy animals are in high demand in your community and across the country!  The research has now caught up with what pet lovers have always known: animals have a healing influence in our lives. There is supporting evidence that animals may relieve depression, combat loneliness, reduce heart disease, increase the “feel good” hormones, and more!

Therapy animal handlers can tell many compelling stories of the powerful effect of their work: people in memory care that talk to the therapy animal after months of silence, a child in the hospital that doesn’t appear to feel pain while the animal is visiting, autistic children who speak for the first time after petting a therapy animal.

Would you like to make a difference in people’s lives and form a deeper connection with your pet? Click here to read Part 2 to learn how you and your pet can become a therapy team!

Note: All photos in this blog are of local therapy animal teams! 

Written by Patti Anderson, C.P.D.T., Paws Abilities Therapy Dog Trainer

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