The term pet therapy, coined in 1964 by child psychiatrist Boris M. Levinson, refers to the use of pets to treat specific diseases. In Italy, this term has recently been replaced with the more appropriate one of animal assisted interventions (IAA), which makes it possible to distinguish between different types of approaches, depending on whether the so-called component prevails playful-recreational (animal assisted activity, AAA), that educational (animal assisted education, EAA) or that therapeutic (animal assisted therapy, TAA).

As for operations, the "National Guidelines for Assisted Interventions with Animals", approved at the state-regions conference in March 2015, in addition to defining operational standards for the correct and uniform application of animal assisted interventions (IAA) on the national territory, provide information on tasks and responsibilities of the various professional figures and operators who make up the multidisciplinary team involved in this type of initiative (veterinarians, doctors, psychologists, educators, dog educators, ethologists). The guidelines also identify and specify the training courses to be followed to acquire the skills necessary to work in the IAA.

Numerous scientific evidence demonstrates the potential of the use of animals as a tool for treatment, particularly in hospitals and retirement homes for the elderly, structures in which people are separated from the affection and support of their loved ones. The presence of an animal acts as an "ice pick", offers conversation topics and ultimately stimulates communication and social relationships. Even in the case of people with autism spectrum disorders, who have difficulty communicating and interacting with others, the introduction of dogs in therapeutic sessions has had encouraging effects: rapid improvement in the level of attention and the frequency of social interactions, both verbal and non-verbal, and reduction of behavioral stereotypies, that is, of those repeated movements without apparent purpose that often characterize the disorder.

The ability of animals to represent a bridge, to foster human social relations, has practical implications not only in care pathways but also in educational settings. Various interventions for the promotion of the child-animal relationship carried out with the help of pets, especially dogs, have shown their effectiveness in countering some behavioral problems such as, for example, learning difficulties, often due to attention deficit, and episodes of aggression. In addition, they highlighted the valuable role that animals can play in facilitating social integration in the school environment, a particularly important result for children and adolescents with pathologies characterized by developmental delay. Numerous scientific evidences show how growing up with an animal positively affects children's personality development, increasing self-esteem, self-confidence and improving empathy (ie, the ability to understand the mood of others) and the sense of responsibility. In fact, the relationship that is established with the animal and the relationship with it, especially during play, can contribute to favoring social behaviors in the child, thus facilitating the methods of approach and interaction both with other children and with adults.

The mechanisms underlying the effects described are still under study. The mere presence of an animal during perceived stressful situations (for example, reading aloud in front of other people) is known to reduce anxiety levels, blood pressure and heart rate. Scientific studies have shown how physical contact with an animal induces a reduction in the blood levels of hormones responsible for the stress response (cortisol). At the same time, it causes an increase in the quantities of hormones and neurotransmitters capable of determining positive emotions (endorphins and dopamine) and reducing anxiety and stress. This also leads to an improvement in relationships with others and mood (through the stimulation of oxytocin, a neuropeptide secreted by the hypothalamus). The results of the most recent research also demonstrate how relationships based on affection and attachment can effectively establish themselves between different species and also lead to a reciprocal regulation of emotions and behaviors.



Berry A, Borgi M, Francia N, Alleva E, Cirulli F. Use of assistance and therapy dogs for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: a critical review of the current evidence. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2013; 19: 73-80

Berry A, Borgi M, Terranova L, Chiarotti F, Alleva E, Cirulli F. Developing effective Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) programs involving visiting dogs for institutionalized geriatric patients: a pilot study.Psychogeriatrics. 2012; 12: 143-150

Borgi M, Cirulli F. Attitudes towards animals among kindergarten children: species preferences [Summary]. Anthrozoös. 201528: 45-59

Borgi M, Cirulli F. Pet Face: mechanisms underlying human-animal relationships. Frontiers in Psychology. 2016; 7: 298

Borgi M, Cogliati-Dezza I, Brelsford V, Meints K, Cirulli F. Baby schema in human and animal faces induces cuteness perception and gaze allocation in children. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014;  5: 411

Borgi M, Loliva D, Cerino S, Chiarotti F, Venerosi A, Bramini M, Nonnis E, Marcelli M, Vinti C, De Santis C, Bisacco F, Fagerlie M, Frascarelli M, Cirulli F. Effectiveness of a Standardized Equine-Assisted Therapy Program for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder [Summary]. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2016; 46: 1–9

Cerino S, Cirulli F, Chiarotti F, Seripa S. Non conventional psychiatric rehabilitation in schizophrenia using therapeutic riding: the FISE multicentre Pindar project. Annals of the "Istituto Superiore di Sanità". 2011; 47: 409-414

Cirulli F (edited by).Animal therapists: Introductory manual to the world of pet therapy. Carocci Publisher: Rome, 2013

Cirulli F, Borgi M, Berry A, Francia N, Alleva E. Animal-Assisted-Interventions as innovative tools for mental health. Annals of the "Istituto Superiore di Sanità". 2011; 47: 341-348

Nagasawa M, Mitsui S, En S, Ohtani N, Ohta M, Sakuma Y, Onaka T, Mogi K, Kikusui T. Social evolution. Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds [Summary]. Science. 2015; 348: 333–336

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