Senior lady being visited by therapy dog in hospital

Human Animal Interaction

Animal therapy: can the human-animal bond treat mind and body?

A new publication series assesses existing evidence on animal-assisted therapy.

Barely a week passes without a media story claiming that pets benefit human health and well-being. Companion animals are increasingly used as ‘therapeutic tools’ in medical and mental health care. But how strong is the evidence that this practice, known as Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI), is effective? Now a new series of papers, published by the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition (UK) and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (USA), attempts a systematic review.

AAI has been practiced informally since the 18th century. Many modern day therapists and practitioners claim their own dogs have helped a patient feel better. Since the 1980s, researchers have progressed from broad descriptions of how interacting with animals brings benefits, to more rigorous studies. To support this trend, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), in partnership with WALTHAM™ co-hosted an AAI workshop and helped fund new research. The value of AAI in special populations including patients in need of rehabilitation and recovery, and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) were on the agenda. This meeting of minds led to six themed publications in the journal Applied Developmental Science. The papers provide insights into mechanisms of AAI, how AAI research can be improved and tactical planning for the future. The potential of AAI for children with ASD and the legal and policy issues considered relevant to implementing AAI in special populations are reviewed. Finally, current challenges to conducting AAI research are explored.


McCune, S., Esposito, L., Griffin, J.A., 2017. Introduction to a thematic series on animal assisted interventions in special populations. Applied Developmental Science.

Serpell, J., McCune, S., Gee, N., Griffin, J.A., 2017. Current challenges to research on animal-assisted interventions. Applied Developmental Science.