A therapy dog promotes improvement in human physical, social, emotional, or cognitive function, and functions in either group or individual settings. By providing comfort and affection, therapy dogs play a role in animal-assisted intervention (AAI) that helps people with or without diagnosed or physical conditions.15 A therapy dog used in human AAI is not recognized by the ADA as a service animal. AAI is classified as either animal-assisted therapy (AAT) or animal assisted activity (AAA). An AAT is either delivered or directed by health or human service providers working within the scope of their profession and is documented and evaluated, whereas an AAA is not.
A therapy dog used in an AAT is part of a goal-directed intervention in which the animal meets specific criteria that are integral parts of the treatment process. Examples of AAT include presence at sessions with a speech or occupational therapist or interaction with a licensed professional counselor. Examples of AAA, in which there is not a goal-directed intervention overseen by a professional, may include airport visits, de-stress events, and visiting hospital patients, caregivers, and residents of nursing homes.
Relevant Information for Practitioners
There are a number of medical considerations when working with therapy dogs. As in the case of service dogs, certain drugs (e.g., antihistamines, anxiolytics, epileptic medications, and analgesics or other pain medications) and anesthetic procedures may temporarily impact their cognitive ability to make decisions and to interact with people.
Practitioners should bear inmind the importance of disease transmission (particularly zoonotic disease) as therapy dogs are often visiting immunocompromised individuals. In agreement with AAHA recommendations, raw diets should be avoided because of the risk of contamination with pathogenic organisms.27 Routine preventive healthcare and deworming for internal and external parasites is essential. Although someone other than the veterinarian is tasked with evaluation, therapy dogs must be behaviorally stable.19