Types of Therapy Animals

Last updated on: February 18, 2016

What are the different types of Therapy Animals?

Therapy dog”, “Therapy Pet”, “Therapy Animal”, or "Companion Animal" are commonly used terms and can refer to one or more categories where an animal (dog, cat or other animal) helps people in different ways.

Many explanations and/or definitions can be found surrounding the different types of therapy animals. In order to describe therapy animals, we will use the commonly accepted definitions and provide explanations for each category.

You may select one of the links below to go directly to the information that is contained in the body of this page.

Types of Therapy Animals:

Animal-Assisted Intervention

Animal-Assisted Activities

Animal-Assisted Education

Animal-Assisted Therapy

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

What is a Service Animal?

Chart Comparing Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Animals




Animal-Assisted Intervention

A leader in pet therapy, Pet Partners defines Animal-Assisted Intervention as encompassing all the following:

“Animal-assisted interventions are goal oriented and structured interventions that intentionally incorporate animals in health, education and human service for the purpose of therapeutic gains and improved health and wellness. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), animal-assisted education (AAE) and animal-assisted activities (AAA) are all forms of animal-assisted interventions. In all these interventions, the animal may be part of a volunteer therapy animal team working under the direction of a professional or an animal that belongs to the professional himself."

Animal-Assisted Activities

Pet Partners defines Animal-Assisted Activities as:

"Animal-assisted activities provide opportunities for motivational, educational and/or recreational benefits to enhance quality of life. While more informal in nature, these activities are delivered by a specially trained professional, paraprofessional and/or volunteer, in partnership with an animal that meets specific criteria for suitability."

AAA therapy animal teams visit people in many locations, whether it is at a library, medical facility, crisis center, or an event, to name a few. The visits are not necessarily done on a routine basis; they can be scheduled or unscheduled, short or long. The length and duration of the visits depend upon the needs of the people being visited and the policies of the facility.

AAA visits may be held in a centralized area where there are groups of people, or the therapy animals may visit people individually in their rooms or homes. The people spend time petting or touching, playing, talking or watching the therapy animals. It is an informal approach that takes into account the abilities of each person being visited. Staff and family members also enjoy their time with the therapy animals.

Therapy animals bring unconditional love and comfort to the people they visit, and there are countless ways that people benefit from the therapy animal’s visits. Scientists and researchers have documented how heart rate and blood pressure are lowered, stress and depression is eased, fear is relieved and many other forms of well-being are a result of the rewarding time spent between the person and therapy animal. The results of these studies explain in factual terms what people who love dogs or other animals have known all along.

Animal-Assisted Education

Pet Partners defines Animal-Assisted Education below: 

"Animal-assisted education is a goal oriented, planned and structured intervention directed by a general education or special education professional. The focus of the activities is on academic goals, pro-social skills and cognitive functioning with student progress being both measured and documented."

Educational professionals could incorporate AAE activities into their plan during a student's reading session, then measure and document the student's progress.

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Pet Partners defines Animal-Assisted Therapy as:

“Animal-assisted therapy is a goal oriented, planned, structured and documented therapeutic intervention directed by health and human service providers as part of their profession. A wide variety of disciplines may incorporate AAT. Possible practitioners could include physicians, occupational therapists, physical therapists, certified therapeutic recreation specialists, nurses, social workers, speech therapists, or mental health professionals."

Medical or psychiatric professionals create individual treatment plans with goals, and may choose to involve AAT as part of the treatment plan. The person receiving treatment may have emotional, physical, social or cognitive challenges. The purpose of the AAT is to assist the person towards reaching the identified goals.

Appointments are scheduled for the person going through the treatment plan. The Therapy Animal has specific duties that are designed to help the person achieve the goals. For instance, a patient may throw a ball and then the therapy dog takes the ball back to the patient for the next throw. As a result, certain parts of the patient’s body and mind are exercised. The professional documents the treatment plan and the outcome of each appointment. Progress and goals are monitored and documented as well.

At Helping Idaho Dogs, our therapy dog teams are generally categorized under Animal-Assisted Activities, Animal-Assisted Education and Animal-Assisted Therapy.


What is an Emotional Support Animal?

Listed below is the definition for Emotional Support Animal from Wikipedia:

“An Emotional Support Animal is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit, such as alleviating or mitigating some symptoms of the disability, to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability.” (Wikipedia, Emotional Support Animal n.d.)

Animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as Service Animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (Americans with Disabilities Act 1990)

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) governs the use of ESAs on commercial aircraft. DOT updated their definition of service animal to include emotional support animals:

“This document refines DOT’s previous definition of service animal by making it clear that animals that assist persons with disabilities by providing emotional support qualify as service animals …” (Air Carrier Access Act 2003)

The Fair Housing Act Amendments (FHAA) govern the use of ESAs in federally funded housing. (Fair Housing Act Amendments 1988)

In order to be protected under the ACAA and/or FHAA, the owner must be disabled, according to federal law. The owner becomes qualified to use an ESA through a medical or psychiatric professional who must document that the person has the disability, and that the animal provides therapeutic benefits to the disabled person.

What is a Service Animal?

Service Animals are sometimes referred to as “Assistance Animals,” “Support Animals,” and similar terms that people use when referring to an animal that performs tasks for a person with a disability.

It is unethical to represent or use your Therapy Animal as a Service Animal.

Under the ADA, a Service Animal is not the same as an Emotional Support Animal or Therapy Animal. A Service Animal is legally defined and protected under the ADA as a working animal and is not considered a pet. Neither Emotional Support Animals nor Therapy Animals are entitled to the same privileges that Service Animals receive under the ADA.

The ADA states:

“Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.” (Americans with Disabilities Act 19

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has made amendments to the ADA. The DOJ's fact sheet titled 'Highlights of the Final Rules to Amend the DOJ's Regulation Implementing Title II of the ADA states:

"The rule permits the use of trained miniature horses as alternatives to dogs, subject to certain limitations. To allow flexibility in situations where using a horse would not be appropriate, the final rule does not include miniature horses in the definition of "service animal."

Some states have specific laws related to Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Animals. Therapy Animals usually are not Service Animals.

Chart Comparing Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Animals

The purpose of this chart is to provide a high-level summary of common questions and answers.

Does a federal law consider the animal a pet?No (ADA)Yes (ADA, FHAA, ACAA)Yes (ADA, FHAA, ACAA)
Is the animal’s  sole function  to bring comfort and emotional support?No (ADA)Yes (ADA, FHAA, ACAA)No, therapy animals can be used during medical treatments
Is the animal defined under the ADA?YesNoNo
In order to meet the federal definition of a service animal, does the animal have to perform specific work or tasks that help the disabled person?Yes (ADA, FHAA, ACAA)Yes (FHAA, ACAA)N/A
Does a federal law mandate that the animal has to receive training to qualify for protection under a particular law?Yes (ADA)No  (FHAA, ACAA)N/A
Does the final ADA definition of a service animal include other animals besides dogs?No (ADA -Trained miniature horses only subject to certain limitations)N/AN/A
Is the animal defined or referenced under the FHAA or ACAA?Yes (FHAA, ACAA)Yes (FHAA, ACAA)No
Is the service animal of a disabled person protected under the ADA, FHAA, or the ACAA?Yes (ADA, FHAA, ACAA)Yes (FHAA, ACAA)N/A
Generally, is a service animal allowed to accompany its disabled person wherever the public is allowed to go?Yes (ADA)N/AN/A
May staff ask a disabled person if the dog is a service animal required because of a disability?Yes (ADA)N/AN/A
May staff ask a disabled person what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?Yes (ADA)N/AN/A
Does federal law mandate that the animal be covered by liability insurance?NoNoNo



Please copy and paste the links below if you would like to go to the page.

1. Pet Partners website on terminology for therapy dogs, animal-assisted activities, animal-assisted therapy, etc.:


2. Wikipedia, Emotional Support Animal.


3. Americans with Disabilities Act.1990 (ADA).


4. ADA Fact Sheet.


5. Air Carrier Access Act. (ACAA) United States Department of Transportation, Federal Register/ Vol. 68, No. 90 / Friday, May 9, 2003 / Rules and Regulations.


6. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Fair Housing Act Amendments. 1988. (FHAA)






American Veterinary Medical Association.


Pet Partners.


U.S. Department of Justice FAQ about service animals and the ADA.


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. 1973.



Service Dog Central.



Service and Support Animals in Housing Law. Ensminger and Breitkopf. 2009. American Bar Association, GPSOLO July/August 2009 edition.


Wikipedia, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.



Wikipedia, Emotional Support Animal and Fair Housing Act.