“Pet Therapy” terms cheat sheet


As we continue to develop Oakland University’s Center for Human Animal Interventions, we know that as educators, we need to help people understand what the various terms in the field mean – and why.

While many use the term “pet therapy,” on the professional side, the field is known as “animal assisted interventions.” And it’s growing. That means that more and more professionals are bringing animals to “work.” But what does that mean? Are they truly animal assisted therapists?

With that in mind, here’s a glossary of commonly used terms and their acronyms. If you’re new to the field, bookmark this page and use it as your cheat sheet.

We’ll start with the broadest term and work down to the most specific.

Animal assisted intervention: AAI

 The American Veterinary Medical Association defines animal assisted intervention as “a broad term that is now commonly used to describe the utilization of various species of animals in diverse manners beneficial to humans. Animal assisted therapy, education, and activities are examples of types of animal assisted intervention.”

In short, animal assisted intervention is the umbrella term for all the activities involving therapeutic animals and people. It’s the “big picture.”

Animal assisted activities: AAA

Animal assisted activities involve interaction between therapy animals and people to produce a temporary improvement in the person involved. The role of the animal isn’t well defined, and neither is the outcome. Because of this, animal assisted activities don’t necessarily need to be overseen by a professional.

For example, when a volunteer brings a dog to an oncology unit waiting room so that those waiting for treatment can interact with the animal, it’s an animal assisted activity. The dog helps patients relax in a stressful environment so there is a positive outcome, but the effect might be temporary and the volunteer isn’t necessarily a trained professional.

Animal assisted therapy: AAT

Animal assisted therapy happens when a professional introduces an animal into a therapeutic situation with the goal of producing specific, measurable outcomes. That’s the biggest difference between AAT and AAI – with AAT, there are clearly defined goals and consistent intervention, and progress can be measured and evaluated.

An occupational therapist using a dog to help a child develop fine motor skills by having the child brush the dog, buckle and unbuckle a collar, and attach a leash is one example. Another is a physical therapist helping a patient develop strength by walking a dog. Progress in both cases can be tracked and measured.

Animal assisted education: AAE

Did your children ever bring home the class guinea pig for the weekend or during spring vacation? That class pet is part of the teacher’s animal assisted education program.

Animal assisted education brings animals into an educational setting or incorporates them as an educational tool. Sometimes, the goal is as simple as understanding the basic life cycle – as when a classroom watches baby chicks hatch from eggs. Other times, the goal is to help students develop a respect for life and to become good caregivers of living things.

Not all therapy animals are created equal

A basic understanding of this field also involves knowing the difference between service and therapy animals.

Service animals act as a tool for people with an illness or disability. Most of us are familiar with guide dogs for the blind – they’re service animals and fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so they’re protected by those rules. But the category may even include pets specially trained to detect blood sugar changes in severe diabetics or early signs of seizure.

Because they often have a life-saving role, service animals are often allowed into facilities where pets are prohibited. Therapy animals, on the other hand, don’t have that all-access backstage pass because they aren’t necessary for survival.

Our efforts at OU focus on training people in animal assisted interventions. Learn more about our certificate program on our animal assisted therapy website.

Are you using an animal for therapy? Tell us how you’re doing that!








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