You may have heard of animal therapy, but you might not have ever considered implementing it in the workplace. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it involves using animals as a form of treatment or as an accompaniment to existing treatments. The goal of animal-assisted therapy is to improve social, emotional or cognitive functions. Additionally, proponents believe animals can also be useful for educational and motivational stimulation.

Most pet owners already know the benefits of having animals in their lives. Cats and dogs in particular seem to sense when we’re under the weather and make attempts to improve our feelings or mood. Medical professionals have taken note and are integrating animal therapy into the treatment of people with mental health issues, and results — improving or alleviating depression and reducing anxiety — are extremely positive.

You might find, from an employer standpoint, that allowing pets into the workplace in some capacity will have a similar affect as animal therapy. Employees may find the presence of their pet or co-workers’ pets to be calming, reduce stress and create the opportunity to step away from their desks to take animals outside for a short time throughout the workday.

This approach may not work well for your workplace. If the idea is appealing, though, try compromising by offering designated “bring your pets to work” days or establishing meeting group for pet owners to get together after work. Depending on your type of business, consider the following factors before making a decision:

  • Requirements for all pets in the workplace to have documentation concerning immunizations.
  • How common it is for the public/your customers to frequent your place of business.
  • Any insurance/lease requirements that may prohibit animals in the building.
  • Your employees’ general comfort level.
  • The availability of caregivers should the pet owner be occupied.

Potential Downsides

In general, animal-assisted therapy has proven to be effective for a wide range of physical and mental therapies, but there are two big problems to think about before agreeing to allow employees to bring animals into the workplace:

  • Allergies. You need to know about any relevant allergies that affect members of your workforce and consider if or how you can work around them.
  • Fear. Some people are fearful of certain animals. While size might be a factor, these individuals may simply not ever feel comfortable.

Making It Work

How can this idea fit into your company’s health plan or your health care communications to employees? While most health insurance plans will not cover therapy specifically related to animals, there are many therapists who use animals as part of the therapeutic process. Whether at the office or through off-site therapy sessions, this might be something your employees appreciate. Locating a licensed therapist or practitioner who’s familiar with using animals may be the best choice for employees interested in that form of treatment.

If you find that having animals in the workplace is simply not possible for your organization, there are other ways to casually integrate the mental and physical benefits that animal interaction provides, such as designating a day for interested employees to volunteer at a local animal shelter or holding a pet-friendly cookout or outing.

Implementing animal-assisted therapy must involve input from employees, therapists, animal handlers and management. The idea might not integrate well into your office environment, but you can still communicate to your workforce that it’s an option for those who might benefit from it.

Allison Hutton is an experienced writer, editor, communications professional, researcher and social media consultant. During her more than 15 years of communications and writing experience, Allison has worked with a variety of clients, from small-business owners to Fortune 500 companies. She has an M.S. in entertainment business, a B.A. in communication and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her husband and four children.