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occupational therapy and animals

Unleashing the Animal in Occupational Therapy: Resources for Practice, Training, and Research – Part I

Can you combine occupational therapy and animals? Of course!

The bigger question is How? To answer that question, a practitioner needs resources. But in our experience, those resources are scattered and often buried, and if we’re all digging to unearth the same info, that leaves less time to plant seeds. So we’ve collected some resources related to practice, training, and research for occupational therapists who want to work with animals, in the hope that, together, we can nurture and grow this area of OT.

Part I of this three-part series covers practice resources; parts II and III will cover training and research resources, respectively. But before we jump into the resources, some background info and definitions will ensure we’re all on the same page.

Background: Occupational Therapy and Animals

Over the past decade, occupational therapists have become increasingly involved in the growing field of human-animal interaction, also known as HAI. Defined, human-animal interaction is shared, dynamic associations between people and animals, and the effects of those relationships on health and well-being (McCardle, McCune, Griffin, Esposito, & Freund, 2011). How does this mesh with occupational therapy? For one, pet care is an instrumental activity of daily living, according to AOTA’s Framework (2014). Second, assistance animals can help OT clients engage in meaningful daily activities, so a handful of OTs recommend or evaluate clients for such animals or help clients learn to work with them. Finally, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can help appropriate clients reach OT-related goals.

Animal-assisted therapy, if you’re not yet familiar, is composed of interventions delivered and documented by a health or human services professional (like an OT), where an animal is incorporated into treatment within the professional’s scope of practice (Pet Partners, 2012). The OT may either handle the animal herself or work with a human handler and her animal. AAT differs from animal-assisted activities (AAA), which have more of a meet-and-greet nature (Pet Partners, 2012); for example, volunteers visiting eldercare facilities or engaging in library reading programs with their pets.

Although still relatively uncommon, occupational therapists practicing AAT are more and more visible, incorporating animals as diverse as horses, llamas, dogs, and ducks into their work. Stats are hard to come by, but as of 2015, there were 49 self-identified OTs registered with the organization Pet Partners as animal-assisted therapy providers, 37 of whom were in the US (per the Pet Partners website). And since Pet Partners is primarily a volunteer organization, not a professional one (see below), they’re just one organization that registers providers, and they register only the people who work directly with an animal, that number represents just a percentage of OTs in this burgeoning field.

Practice Resources

Working with animals to provide OT services requires preparation and knowledge of best practices.

As occupational therapists, we need to ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks, not only for our clients but also for the animals involved in any HAI activity we undertake. Regardless of whether you plan to venture into HAI in the area of pet care, assistance animals, or AAT, the following organizations can help you get familiar with the field and then stay on top of the evidence (which is essential) once you’re established in it.

The Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation (HABRI) is a treasure trove of information on interdisciplinary research and education regarding human-animal interaction. Its searchable online database, HABRI Central, contains an extensive archive of HAI-related studies, book content, videos, and conference proceedings, as well as information about continuing education offerings.

With its well-respected journal, Anthrozoös, the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) is at the forefront of HAI research. Its email listserv, coordinated by a nurse involved in HAI work, highlights new opportunities for learning and research, and provides a helping hand in learning about top players in the field as it expands.

Animal Assisted Intervention International started, and remains, closer to home: One of its founders and current president is occupational therapist Melissa Winkle, who has been involved in AAT, as well as assistance dog provision, for years. This membership group sets professional standards for health care and social-service practice with animals, as well as hosting conferences and providing continuing ed.

Though AAA-centric, Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) published standards of practice for AAT in 1996 and continues to be relevant for therapists interested in incorporating animals into their practice. If you’re looking to work with a volunteer animal–handler team or start a visitation program in your facility, this is one of the best-known organizations to consult. Though not OT-based, Pet Partners also provides opportunities for animal–handler registration and courses related to AAT administration.

Love horses? The American Hippotherapy Association (AHA) is a dedicated organization for OTs, PTs, and SLPs who provide equine-assisted therapy (EAT). It offers training and certification, a directory of EAT practitioners, conferences, and continuing ed, and a semiannual magazine covering a variety of topics of interest within the field.

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International (formerly the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, or NARHA) is another equine-focused membership organization. PATH International has a broader scope than AHA, including both equine-assisted activities and therapy, but PATH International sets the industry standards for both. It also offers training, certifications (of multiple types), mentorship, conferences, job listings, and grant information, and has a searchable database of member centers on its website.

If you’re looking to get into referral or evaluation for assistance animals, consider consulting Assistance Dogs International (ADI) to find a local organization to work with. Although dog-centric, ADI sets the bar for the field of provision of assistance animals.

Want more info on occupational therapy and animals? See part II of this series, which focuses on training opportunities, and part III, which delves into research.

Part II of the AAT Series

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McCardle, P., McCune, S., Griffin, J., Esposito, L., & Freund, L. (Eds.). (2011). Animals in our lives: Human-animal interaction in family, community, & therapeutic settings. Baltimore, MD: Brooks Publishing Co. American Occupational Therapy Association. (2014). Occupational therapy practice framework: Domain and process (3rd ed.). American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 68(Suppl. 1), S1–S48. Pet Partners (2012). Animal-Assisted Therapy Overview.


About Diana Varvara and Jennie Dapice Feinstein

Diana Varvara And Jennie Dapice Feinstein
Diana Varvara, OTR/L, edits and writes on multiple subjects, including OT and dogs. She completed clinical fieldwork in animal-assisted OT at Dogwood Therapy Services in Albuquerque, holds a certificate in AAT from Harcum College, and contributed to the book Professional Applications of Animal Assisted Interventions. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------  Jennie Dapice Feinstein, PhD, OTR/L, has alternately researched HAI and practiced AAT, including school-based AAT-OT and hippotherapy, over the past 15 years. She recently concluded her doctoral research in OT/HAI at Virginia Commonwealth University. She currently serves as an ambassador to Tufts University’s Institute for Human-Animal Interaction, and cares for retired facility dog Norm.

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  1. Melissa Y. Winkle

    Thank you Ms. Varvara and Dapice-Feinstein for this well-written and accurate quick reference to animal assisted therapy. I am familiar with the work both of you have previously done, and would have expected nothing less! Minor correction- the new website for Animal Assisted Intervention International is
    Well done!
    Melissa Winkle, OTR/L, FAOTA
    President, Dogwood Therapy Services and Animal Assisted Intervention International

  2. Curious if you have to obtain an Occupational Therapist degree first before becoming an Assisted Animal Therapist?

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