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Occupational Therapy Animals


Occupational therapy makes use of a variety of methods. See how that even includes pets, service dogs, and other therapy animals.

Occupational therapy assistants work with a variety of tools and methods, and that even includes fluffy ones who can help clients physically, sensorially, emotionally, and cognitively. Dogs, horses, cats, even chickens can have powerful, positive, and adorable effects on clients’ daily lives.

OTAs help clients gain or regain skills relating to the care of their own pets or how to best adapt to using service animals. Therapy animals can also draw some clients out of their shells, assisting OT practitioners with emotional and cognitive care.

Related resource: Where Do Occupational Therapy Assistants Work?

Occupational therapy and pets

Occupational therapy (OT) is all about activities of daily living, known as ADL in the practice.  Those activities can include how clients get dressed, brush their teeth, or prepare food. It can also include basic pet care.

For those clients with animals, OT interacts with their furry companions in several ways. Most obviously, occupational therapy assistants can help clients better interact with and care for their pets.

Some clients will need to gain or regain the skills necessary to care for their animal. Working on the best ways to lift a bag of cat food or set a pet’s bowl on the floor can include movements that a client may need to work on, and managing that can be something OTAs can address.

Companion and service animals are very different from pets, though. Unlike pets, these animals fulfill a specific physical or emotional need for the client.

Related resource: What Does an Occupational Therapy Assistant Do?

Service dogs

Dogs are the most common type of therapy animal. Most people are familiar with guide dogs for those with visual impairments. However, people with hearing impairments, autism, or psychiatric disorders can also benefit from the many types of skilled service dogs out there.

To see how dogs go from puppies to helpers, take a look at this short documentary from BuzzFeed:

(Embed this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3k6cA27iWy8)

Dogs are adaptable, intelligent, and social. These qualities allow them to do basic things like alerting a visually impaired person to a curb or a flight of stairs. Dogs can also be trained to perform more advanced, specific tasks like sniffing out allergens, acting as medical alerts, or fetching medicine for their handlers.

Regardless of their function, clients will often require guidance in how to best make use of their animal. In these cases, holding a dog’s lead or harness is just as vital a skill as learning how to dress oneself or perform hygiene.

For these clients, the specific way they interact with their animal is part of their ADL. Some visually impaired clients may require extra help being led by a dog, for instance. An OTA advising them on how to interact with their dog in this specific, necessary way will be helping the client gain the skills they need to safely navigate the world with their loyal companion every day.

Related resource: Meet Your Co-Workers: OTA Edition

Types of service animals besides dogs

Dogs aren’t the only therapy animals. Plenty of other animals can be trained or used in therapy activities. Hippotherapy, or equine-assisted therapy, refers to the use of horses to engage with sensory or motor skills. Putting a client on a horse can give them a whole new perspective and ways of using their motor skills and senses.

Even chickens can be therapy animals.

Cats, llamas, and guinea pigs are also frequent therapy animals. Interacting with these creatures can decrease stress and anxiety while increasing motivation and vocalization. Occupational therapy assistants who assist clients with developmental or cognitive delays could see many positive results from a client interacting with a therapy animal—the most inspiring of which is simply pure joy.

If you’ve ever considered a career as an OTA, check out our e-book on seven facts about our OTA program, and be sure to join our community on Facebook.