The role of connection in the efficacy of animal-assisted therapies: A scoping review


  • Sharron Beggs Federation University. Australia
  • Rob Townsend Federation University. Australia



Animal assisted therapies, connection, efficacy, psychotherapies, human services, social work


INTRODUCTION: There is an undeniable connection between humans and animals, with the relationship between the two being well documented across the centuries of history and storytelling.

METHODS: This article outlines a scoping review of the literature and research exploring the history, efficacy, and currency of animal assisted therapies (AATs) as they have developed in recent decades within human services and social work programmes.

FINDINGS AND IMPLICATIONS: Archaeological research suggests a mutualistic relationship has existed between canines and humans dating back 140,000 years evolving to deepened connections between animals and behaviourally modern humans including 15,000 years of animal domestication. These connections have generated relationships where animals both work for and with humans, assuming diverse roles ranging from service animal to companion pet, from livestock to live entertainment, from symbolic idol to science experiment and, as demonstrated in this article, as co-therapist or therapeutic medium in psychotherapeutic, human services and social work practice processes.


Antonioli, C., & Reveley, M. A. (2005). Randomised controlled trial of animal facilitated therapy with dolphins in the treatment of depression. BMJ, 331(7527), 1–4. https://doi:10.1136/bmj.331.7527.1231.

Balluerka, N., Muela, A., Amiano, N., & Caldentey, M. A. (2014). Influence of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) on the attachment representations of youth in residential care. Children and Youth Services Review, 42, 103–109. https://doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2014.04.007

Besthorn, F. H., & Saleebey, D. (2003). Nature, genetics, and the biophilia connection: Exploring linkages with social work values and practice. Advances in Social Work, 4(1), 1–18.

Brodie, S. J., & Biley, F. C. (1999). An exploration of the potential benefits of pet-facilitated therapy. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 8, 329–337. https://doi:10.1046/j.1365- 2702.1999.00255.x

Burton, L. E., Qeadan, F., & Burke, M. R. (2019). Efficacy of equine-assisted psychotherapy in veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Integrative Medicine, 17, 14–19. https://doi:10.1016/j. joim.2018.11.001

Chandler, C. K. (2012). Animal assisted therapy in counselling (2nd ed). Routledge Publishing.

Chandramouleeswaran, S., & Russell, P. S. S. (2014). Complementary psychosocial interventions in child and adolescent psychiatry: Pet assisted therapy. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 36(1), 4-8. https://doi:10.4103/0253-7176.127240

Coetzee, N., Beukes, J. T., & Lynch, I. (2013). Substance abuse inpatients’ experience of animal-assisted therapy. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 23(3), 477–480. https://doi:10.1080/14330237.2013.10820654

Dell, C. A., Chalmers, D., Bresette, N., Swain, S., Rankin, D., & Hopkins, C. (2011). A healing space: The experiences of First Nations and Innuit youth with equine-assisted learning (EAL). Child Youth Care Forum, 40, 319–336. https://doi:10.1007/s10566-011-9140

Dietz, T. J., Davis, D., & Pennings, J. (2012). Evaluating animal-assisted therapy in group treatment for child sexual abuse. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 21(6), 665–683. https://doi:10.1080/10538712.2012.726700

Dunlop, K., & Tsantefski, M. (2018). A space of safety: children’s experiences of equine-assisted group therapy. Child & Family Social Work, 23, 16–24. https://doi. org/10.1111/cfs.12378

Ernst, L. (2014). Animal-assisted therapy: An exploration

of its history, healing benefits, and how skilled nursing facilities can set up programs. Annals of Long-Term Care: Clinical Care and Aging, 22(10), 27–32. articles/animal-assisted-therapy-exploration-its-history- healing-benefits-and-how-skilled-nursing

Every, D., Smith, K., Smith, B., Trigg, J., & Thompson, K. (2017). How can a donkey fly on the plane? The benefits and limits of animal therapy with refugees. Clinical Psychologist, 21, 44–53. https://doi: 10.1111/cp.12071

Faver, C. A. (2009). Seeking our place in the web of life: Animals and human spirituality. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 28(4), 362–378. https://doi:10.1080/15426430903263161

Fine, A. H. (Ed.). (2010). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice. Elsevier.

Firmin, M. W., Brink, J. E., Firmin, R. L. Grigsby, M. E., & Foster Trudel, J. (2016). Qualitative perspectives of an animal-assisted therapy program. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 22(5), 204–213. https://doi:10.1089/act.2016.29073.mwf

Geist, T. S. (2011). Conceptual framework for animal assisted therapy. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 28(3), 243–256. https://doi:10.1007/s10560- 011-0231-3

Germain, S. M., Wilkie, K. D., Milbourne, V. M. K., & Theule, J. (2018). Animal-assisted psychotherapy and trauma: A meta-analysis. Anthrozoös, 31(2), 141-164. https://doi:10.1080/08927936.2018.1434044

Giuliani, F., & Jacquemettaz, M. (2017). Animal-assisted therapy used for anxiety disorders in patients with learning disabilities: an observational study. European Journal of Integrative Medicine, 14, 13–19. https://doi:10.1016/j.eujim.2017.08.004

Gonzalez-Ramirez, M. T., Ortiz-Jimenez, X. A., & Landero- Hernandez, R. (2013). Cognitive-behavioural therapy and animal-assisted therapy: Stress management for adults. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 19(5), 270–275. https://doi:10.1089/act.2013.19505

Grandgeorge, M., & Hausberger, M. (August, 2010). Therapies assisted by animals: A critical review. 61st annual meeting of the European Association for Animal Production, European Federation of Animal Science (EAAP). Heraklion, Greece.

Grandgeorge, M., & Hausberger, M. (2011). Human- animal relationships: From daily life to animal- assisted therapies. Animal Assisted Interventions in Mental Health, 47(4), 397–408. https://doi:10.4415/ ANN_11_04_12

Heinsch, M. (2012). Getting down to earth: Finding a place for nature in social work practice. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21, 309–318. https://doi:10.111/ j.1468-2397.2011.00860

Hines, L. M. (2003). Historical perspectives on the human- animal bond. American Behavioural Scientist, 47(1), 7–15. https://doi:10.1177/0002764203255206

Kamioka, H., Okada, S., Tsutani, K., Park, H., Okuizumi, H., Handa, S., Oshio, T., Park, S. J., Kitayuguchi, J., Abe, T., Honda, T., & Mutoh, Y. (2014). Effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy: A systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 22, 371–390. https://doi:10.1016/j. ctim.2013.12.016

Legge, M. M. (2016). The role of animal-assisted interventions in anti-oppressive social work practice. British Journal of Social Work, 46, 1926–1941. https://doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcv133

Lentini, J. A., & Knox, M. S. (2015). Equine-facilitated psychotherapy with children and adolescents: An update and literature review. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 10(3), 278–305. https://doi:10.1080/15401383.2 015.1023916

Loo, B. K. G., Chew, J. L., & Sridevi, S. (2015). Pilot programme on animal-assisted therapy in Singapore. Proceedings of Singapore Healthcare, 24(2), 113–116. https://doi:10.1177/201010581502400207

Lubbe, C., & Scholtz, S. (2013). The application of animal- assisted therapy in the South African context: A case study. South African Journal of Psychology, 43(1), 116–129. https://doi:10.1177/0081246312474405

Marcus, D. A., Bernstein, C. D., Constantin, J. M., Kunkel, F. A., Breuer, P., & Hanlon, R. B. (2012). Animal-assisted therapy at an outpatient pain management clinic. Pain Medicine, 13, 45–57. 4637.2011.01294.x

Mims, D., & Waddell, R. (2016). Animal assisted therapy and trauma survivors. Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work, 13(5), 452–457. https://doi:10.1080/23761407.20 16.1166841

Munoz Lasa, S., Maximo Bocanegra, N., Valero Alcaide, R., Atin Arratibel, M. A., Varela Donoso, E., & Ferriero, G. (2015). Animal assisted interventions

in neurorehabilitation: A review of the most recent literature. Neurologia, 30 (1), 1–7. http://doi:10.1016/j. nrl.2013.01.012

Nimer, J., & Lundahl, B. (2007). Animal-assisted therapy: A meta-analysis. Anthrozoös, 20(3), 225–238. https://doi:10.2752/089279307X224773

Odendaal, J. S. J. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy: Magic or medicine. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 49 (4), 275–280.

Palley, L. S., O’Rourke, P. P., & Neimi, S. M. (2010). Mainstreaming animal-assisted therapy. Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources Journal, 51(3), 199–207. DOI: 10.1093/ilar.51.3.199

Petersson, M., Uvnas-Moberg, K., Nilsson, A., Gustafson, L-L., Hydbring-Sandberg, E., & Handlin, L. (2017). Oxytocin and cortisol levels in dog owners and their dogs are associated with behavioural patterns: An exploratory study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(1796), 1–8. https://doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01796

Rabbitt, S. M., Kazdin, A. E., & Hong, J. E. (2015). Acceptability of animal-assisted therapy: attitudes towards AAT, psychotherapy, and medication for the treatment of child disruptive behavioural problems. Anthrozoös, 27(3), 335–350. https://doi:10.2752/175303 714X13903827487881

Risley-Curtiss, C. (2010). Social work practitioners and the human-animal companion bond: A national study. Social Work, 55(1), 38–46. https://doi:10.1093/sw/55.1.38

Risley-Curtiss, C., Holley, L. C., & Wolf, S. (2006). The animal-human bond and ethnic diversity. Social Work, 51(3), 257–268. https://doi:10.1093/sw/51.3.257

Serpell, J., McCune, S., Gee, N., & Griffin, J. A. (2017). Current challenges to research on animal-assisted interventions. Applied Developmental Science, 21(3), 223–233. https://doi:10.1080/10888691.2016.1262775

Stefanini, M. C., Martino, A., Allori, P., Galeotti, F., & Tani, F. (2015). The use of animal-assisted therapy in adolescents with acute mental disorders: A randomised controlled study. Complementary Therapies on Clinical Practice, 21, 42–46. https://doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2015.01.001

Stewart, L. A., Chang, C. Y., & Rice, R. (2013). Emergent theory and model of practice in animal-assisted therapy in counselling. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 8(4), 329–348. https://doi:10.1080/15401383.2013.844657

Sucharew H, & Macaluso, M. (2019). Methods for research evidence synthesis: The scoping review approach. Journal of Hospital Medicine, 14(7), 416–418.

Taylor, N., Fraser, H., Signal, T., & Prentice, K. (2016). Social work, animal-assisted therapies and ethical considerations: A programme example from Central Queensland, Australia. British Journal of Social Work, 46, 135–152. https://doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcu115

Tedeschi, P., Fitchett, J., & Molidor, C. E. (2005). The incorporation of animal-assisted interventions in social work education. Journal of Family Social Work, 9(4), 59–77. https://doi: 10.1300/J039v09n04_05

Tuuvas, M., Carlsson, J., & Norberg, J. (2017). A healing relationship: Clients’ experiences of the long-term relational significance of the horse in horse assisted psychotherapy. European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 19(3), 307–328. https://doi:10.1080/136425 37.2017.1348375

Wilson, K., Buultjens, M., Monfries, M., & Larimi, L. (2017). Equine-assisted psychotherapy for adolescents experiencing depression or anxiety: A therapist’s perspective. Clinical Child Psychology, 22(1), 16–33. https://doi:10.1177/1359104515572379

Yap, E., Scheinberg, A., & Williams, K. (2016). Attitudes to and beliefs about animal assisted therapy for children with disabilities. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 26, 47–52. https://doi:10.1016/j. ctcp.2016.11.009

Zenithson, Y. N., Pierce, B. J., Otto, C. M., Buechner- Maxwell, V. A., Siracusa, C., & Were, S. R. (2014). The effect of dog-human interaction on cortisol and behaviour in registered animal-assisted activity dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 159, 69–81. https:// doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2014.07.0009




How to Cite

Beggs, S., & Townsend, R. (2021). The role of connection in the efficacy of animal-assisted therapies: A scoping review. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 33(3), 34–47.



Original Articles