Skip to Main Content

The University of Tennessee

The College of Veterinary Medicine

Frequently Used Tools:

Veterinary Social Work » About Us (What is VSW?) » Animal-Assisted Interactions

What is Animal-Assisted Interactions?

Animal-Assisted Interaction (AAI) is beginning to be recognized as a new intervention for therapy. This type of therapeutic intervention is commonly grouped within the same alternative therapeutic treatments as dance, music, art, and poetry interventions. It is important to remember that the main difference between these alternative therapeutic interventions is that AAI uses a living, breathing, and interacting animal (Mallon, Ross, et al., 2006).

The literature on AAI suggests that animals benefit humans, both directly and indirectly. Although research has increased over the past couple of decades, the existing literature is quite limited. Up to 2004 there were approximately 40 studies examining the efficacy of AAI (Nimer & Lundahl, 2007).


There is a difference between companion animals, service animals, and therapy animals. It is important to make this distinction in order to grasp a deeper understanding of animal-human therapeutic interactions. Therefore, listed below are some of the definitions that are most commonly used.

Service animals are trained to be medical assistants to the disabled and are permitted to accompany their owner, handler, or trainer into any facility (i.e. guide dog) (Chandler, 2005). Unlike service animals, therapy animals are not medical assistants and therefore are prevented from accompanying owners into every facility. There is one important distinction between service animals and therapy animal. Service animals are not supposed to be touched without permission and notice of both the animal and the handler, whereas, therapy animals are trained to be touched without notice. It is not nice to touch any animal without letting them know you are there but it is common occurrence with therapy animals.

AAI is the intervention that intentionally includes an animal as part of the therapeutic process (Kruger and Serpell, 2006). The AAI society that use animals as adjuncts to therapy have not come up with overall terms regarding this type of intervention. Therefore, this definition of AAI was selected as an overall therapy animal definition for this website. This allows for the inclusion of companion animals and animal-assisted therapy animals. Companion animals permanently live with a human and can help to increase the animal and human quality of life (Hart, 2006). These animals are also known as pets.

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is the deliberate inclusion of an animal in a therapeutic treatment plan. Generally, AAT involves a licensed therapist who guides interactions between a patient and an animal to reach specific goals (Chandler, 2005). The inclusion of an animal is designed to accomplish outcomes believed to be difficult to achieve without the animal (Nimer & Lundahl, 2007).

Within AAI literature there is the use of all animals. Horses and dolphins however, are animals that are distinct enough to get their own sub-categories because they are not typical domesticated animals. Horses have two terms associated with them. The first term is Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP); this is when a horse is used to assist in mental health therapy. The second term is Hippotherapy, this is when a therapist uses the movement of the horse to increase physical mobility of the client (Kruger and Serpell, 2006). Dolphin-Assisted therapy (DAT) is the use of dolphins to improve physical and mental wellbeing of clients. It is suggested that work with dolphins may be consistent with optimum conditions needed for cognitive improvements in humans (Nathanson, et. al., 1997).

Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) are when animals are introduced and visit many individuals at nursing homes or hospitals (Chandler, 2005). AAT uses a therapist along with treatments and goals, whereas AAA uses a volunteer and does not have any treatment goals that need to be accomplished.

Dog Bite Prevention Knox Cattlemen UT Veterinary MRI