When the idea of putting animals (usually pets) and people together for therapeutic benefit began to gain popularity in the 1970's, there was no consistent phraseology. The term "pet therapy" had come into field usage to connote the vague feeling that putting people and animals together somehow enhanced the well-being of both. As new programs began utilizing farm or zoo animals, it became apparent that "pet" was self-limiting.
Meanwhile, there was considerable debate as to whether any of these interactions truly constituted a "therapy." Does merely introducing animals to targeted populations constitute "therapy", or were these activities merely recreation? It was suggested that if pet "therapy" were, in fact, therapeutic, it would not be provided free of charge, and it would be coordinated by medical or nursing staffs rather than by recreation therapy or activities departments, and carried out by degreed professionals rather than by volunteers.
Practitioners favored a loose definition, in which something which appears to be beneficial and does no apparent harm can be called therapeutic. A more formal definition, in which any "therapy" intervention requires professional accreditation, liability coverage, and is eligible for insurance reimbursement, was favored by the scientific and health care communities.
The Delta Society has been instrumental in advancing the standard definitions in the field today, distinguishing between Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) and Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT). Delta notes that "animal" is more inclusive than "pet" and that "assisted" indicates greater participation than "facilitated." The Delta definitions are:
Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) provide opportunities for motivational, educational, and/or recreational benefits to enhance quality of life. AAA are delivered in a variety of environments by a specially trained professional, paraprofessional, and/or volunteer in association with animals that meet specific criteria.
Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is delivered and/or directed by a health/human service provider working within the scope of his or her profession. AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning. AAT is provided in a variety of settings and may be group or individual in nature. This process is documented and evaluated.
In recent years, the term "animal-assisted interventions" has been used as an umbrella term to encompass both AAA, AAT, animal-assisted education interventions such as reading and literacy programs and equine-assisted psychotherapy..
While the term "pet therapy" is still used in an informal, generic sense, the official terminology of AAT and AAA, and the distinctions between them, should be utilized by all professionals in the field.