How can a donkey fly on the plane? The benefits and limits of animal therapy with refugees

Danielle Every, Kayleigh Smith, Bradley Smith, Joshua Trigg, Kirrilly Thompson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Humanitarian migrants experience higher rates of mental illness than the resident population, limiting their social and economic opportunities and contributions. Effective interventions are thus critical to improve the settlement outcomes. Many therapists employ narrative and expressive therapies because of their holistic approach to both trauma and psychosocial stressors, and their benefits for working with people with limited English literacy. A potential non-language-based intervention that has been effective with other groups, but which has not yet been evaluated in relation to refugees, is animal-assisted therapy. Animal therapy has been shown to reduce social isolation, increase well-being and reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression in general and clinical populations. However, there is a need to understand if and how these benefits apply to refugees. Methods: We used open-ended questions presented in an online survey for Australian therapeutic and support practitioners working with refugees. Results: We found that interactions with animals in school and community settings have positive outcomes for increasing social interaction, building trust, and reducing difficult behaviours, especially with children. Some clients are more timid around animals, and some express specific cultural concerns about the type of animal. Practitioners recommended that clients are approached individually about their views on animals prior to including animals in therapy or community activities. They also recommend avoiding assumptions about particular cultures and animals, as these are not universal. Conclusions: Culturally appropriate animal therapy may thus be a complementary therapy that improves the therapeutic relationship, overall well-being, and settlement outcomes, especially with refugee children.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)44-53
Number of pages10
JournalClinical Psychologist
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • animal-assisted therapy
  • asylum seekers
  • non-language-based therapy
  • refugees
  • trauma


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