How to Afford Animal Therapy

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Animal therapy has been proven to divert attention away from stressful situations, and make people feel comfortable and safe. A meta-analysis of 49 studies on animal-assisted therapy found positive outcomes and increased feelings of emotional well being in individuals with autism, medical conditions or behavioral issues, according to Psychology Today.

A dog, cat or other pet can serve as a therapy animal at home, or you could visit a horse at a nearby riding stable. A therapist can work with you to get the most out of your work with a pet and can assist you in using techniques that will help you.

Affording animal therapy can be pricey, especially since insurance companies don’t cover it. Here are the best ways to afford animal therapy and why it’s important to take accreditation into consideration.

Types of animal therapy

There are three primary types of animal therapy — service, therapy and emotional support animals.

  • Service animals are typically dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. Disabilities can include physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or mental disabilities or other types of disabilities, according to Title II and III under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Therapy animals are found in clinical settings, which could include schools, hospitals, mental health institutions, nursing homes and hospices. They provide comfort, affection and a calming presence to people in these types of settings.
  • Emotional support animals are assistance animals that help alleviate certain symptoms in people with mental and emotional conditions — particularly anxiety, depression and certain phobias.

General costs of animal therapy

Animal therapy can be prohibitively expensive for some individuals, particularly in the case of service dogs, which can range into the tens of thousands of dollars. Here’s a breakdown of the costs for various types of animals and service costs.

Dogs

  • Benefits: Service dogs provide assistance to various people with disabilities — those who are visually impaired, have seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, deafness and mental illness. They can even dial 911 in the event of an emergency and more. Therapy dogs, on the other hand, can help calm and give affection and comfort to individuals in hospitals, retirement and nursing homes, schools, hospices. They can also offer therapeutic benefits to those who are victims of disaster areas.
  • Vet costs: $260 per year
  • Average food costs: $400 per year
  • Medicine costs (primarily flea/tick prevention): $320
  • Licenses/certifications needed: $15 for a license; specific training for service dogs (including veterinary costs, staff and dog trainers, registration and more) amounts to between $20,000 and $60,000.
  • Organizations that can help with financing: For service dogs, you can access a geographical search of all accredited service dog organizations at Assistance Dogs International.

Cats

  • Benefits: Cats can be support for autistic people, elderly people in nursing homes, those with dementia and other physical health problems.
  • Vet costs: $50 to $400 per year
  • Average food costs: $115 per year
  • Medicine costs (primarily flea/tick prevention): $360
  • Licenses/certificates needed: Written letter from a licensed mental health professional.

Horses (equine therapy)

  • Benefits: Equine therapy has been added into treatment programs for substance abuse, addiction, behavior disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, learning differences, ADD/ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, grief/loss, trauma, sex addiction, compulsive gambling, bipolar disorder, depression and related conditions.
  • Vet and farrier costs: $835
  • Average food costs: More than $1,000 per year
  • Medicine costs: $300 per year for a healthy horse
  • Licenses/certificates needed: Check to be sure your mental health therapists or psychotherapists is credentialed and certified by the Certification Board for Equine Interaction Professionals and that he or she is legally qualified to practice in your state.
  • Equine therapy cost: In many cases, you won’t actually own the horse — though we’ve provided those costs. Between the costs of feeding, grooming and exercise, stall cleaning and session staffing for horse handler and therapist, you’ll pay from $115 and $300 per session for equine therapy.
  • Organizations that can help with financing: The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, EQUUS Foundation, U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and the Horses and Humans Research Foundation.

Small pet therapy

  • Benefits: Small pets like rabbits and guinea pigs offer comfort and companionship, enhance fine motor skills and offer other emotional and behavioral benefits.
  • Vet costs: Between $30 and $90 per year
  • Average food costs: $50–$190, depending on the type of small animal. Hamsters cost $50; rabbits cost $190.
  • Licenses/certificates needed: Written letter from a licensed mental health professional.

Birds

  • Benefits: Birds, and specifically parrots, can have empathy, and that makes them excellent emotional support animals. They can be taught words and phrases, which can help during certain psychological episodes. For example, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can benefit from caring for birds.
  • Vet costs: $85 per year
  • Average food costs: Up to $150, depending on the type of bird you purchase. Parrots cost more than parakeets to feed, because they require more fresh bird-safe fruits and vegetables.
  • Licenses/certificates: Written letter from a licensed mental health professional.

Reptiles

  • Benefits: Reptiles can be a good source of therapy if you’re struggling with depression, eating disorders or substance abuse. Reptiles take some intense focus to care for and can help with emotional, physical and mental needs.
  • Vet costs: Less than $100 per year
  • Average food costs: Food costs depend on your reptile. Geckos and bearded dragons eat crickets, snakes eat mice and iguanas eat mostly fresh fruits and vegetables. Can cost up to $150 per year.
  • Licenses/certificates: Written letter from a licensed mental health professional.

How to pay for animal therapy

Animal therapy assistance can come in several forms: Grants, FSA accounts, personal loans, credit cards and more.

Grants

Grants are one way to get animal therapy assistance, and the most expensive animals are service dogs. Assistance Dogs International and Service Dogs for America are two associations that can help people with disabilities find grant help for service dogs. Training, veterinary costs, staff trainers, registration and more means that service dogs can cost between $20,000 and $60,000. For many individuals who need a service dog, these costs are way out-of-budget, and grants can help alleviate the strain of trying to pay for it all on your own.

FSA accounts

Flexible spending or FSA accounts are designed to help you with health care expenses — you put money into it and use it to pay certain health care costs so you’ll be able to save money for future health care expenses. An FSA allows you to use your salary before taxes, which makes therapy less expensive than paying for services out of pocket.

You can use a flexible spending account (FSA) attached to your insurance policy to buy a service dog if you get a letter of medical necessity (LMN) from your doctor. If you don’t have an FSA, you’ll need to tap into different alternatives, which could be personal loans, credit cards and more. “FSA accounts may cover therapy animals, but only if the appropriate documentation is provided and a medical specialist has specifically prescribed animal therapy,” says Morgan Taylor, finance expert and CMO for LetMeBank.

Personal loans

Personal loans are unsecured loans — in other words, they’re not backed by collateral like a house or car — and you can use them for just about anything, including animal therapy. A personal loan is potentially a good option because the interest rate can be low, particularly if you have a high credit score.

Credit cards

Credit cards are another option for funding, and they can help you securely finance animal therapy and at the same time, earn cashback rewards in the process. It’s a good idea to consider the pros and cons of credit cards — the interest rate (the average is currently over 17%) might be prohibitive. “Whenever possible, personal loans and credit cards should be a last resort,” says Dennis Shirshikov, senior financial analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com. “These loans can potentially put personal assets at risk and lead to financial ruin if mismanaged. Any borrower should have a clear understanding of their budget, the affordability of the loan, and a plan for repayment that does not result in a substantial burden on their personal financial position.”

Other financial options

Many practitioners can offer reduced rates and repayment plans if you find yourself in a financial circumstance that prevents you from paying for therapy. “This varies from one provider to the next, but any conversation about how to potentially afford the therapy should begin with the provider,” Shirshikov adds. “More often than not, they will have options available or will at least have the knowledge to point patients in the right direction.” Be sure to weigh the pros and cons if you think a certain payment method isn’t right for you and decide which option works best for your financial situation.

Why accreditation matters

Shirshikov says that spotting scams can often be difficult, but patients who keep a close eye on reviews, pricing and the organization should be able to catch them. “In general, patients should ask for a reference rather than relying on online reviews, as those can often be fake,” he says. “Any credible institution will likely be able to offer to speak to some past patients about their experiences. Furthermore, patients should be wary of any too-good-to-be-true pricing models.”

He says that if a therapist offers ridiculously low rates or lends money to patients, it could be a scam. Patients should also shop around and check into multiple animal therapists to find the best rates and to solicit feedback. “More often than not, practitioners in a specific field will know of scams that are operating around them and can make patients aware of that fact,” Shirshikov says.

The consequences of not using an accredited program or certification could result in inadequate results for individuals who really do need therapy and also mistreatment of the animals involved. For example, an inexpertly trained service dog could end up hurting its owners if it doesn’t detect when a depressed owner should take her medication. Or maybe a dog whose owner has epilepsy doesn’t regularly detect the onset of a seizure and help its owner remain safe during the seizure.

In addition, not seeking accreditation could mean you aren’t allowed to have your therapy animal in the airport, take him or her to a rental that doesn’t allow pets, or be in an assisted living or nursing home unit that doesn’t allow animals.

Accreditation for different types of animals:

  • Emotional support animals (ESAs): Your mental health practitioner must use an ESA letter referral company. It’s a good idea to be sure the company abides by your state rules and other regulations. It’s also important to understand the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). You can travel with your ESAs as long as you have a letter from a mental health professional.
  • Service animals: Must be an ADA-accredited service dog.
  • Therapy animals: Make sure a trained therapy animal is recognized by a reputable organization. A great resource is the American Kennel Club.

The bottom line

Animal therapy may seem costly, but there are avenues you can take to afford it. Morgan Taylor says not to lose hope and go through your options. “Grants and fundraising options are good resources for those struggling with the often outrageous expenses tied to therapy animals. Fundraising is easier than ever thanks to sites like GoFundMe, which rely on generous donations from others to support a worthy cause. There are grants specifically geared toward support animals. Apply often and thoroughly,” he says.

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