Dogs and horses have long been used in therapy, but experts are raising concerns about a more recent trend that has some Canadian companies offering exotic animals for therapeutic services in hospitals and nursing homes for a fee.
Before a dog can officially join the University of British Columbia's animal therapy program, it has to be vetted by 25 people and go through training with its handler, a mock session and a three-month probation period.
The handlers also go through training both with and without the dog, said John Tyler Binfet, who runs the program aimed at supporting the social and emotional well-being of students at the university's Okanagan campus.
"We take it very seriously," he said, to ensure the process benefits both the patient and the dog.
A number of companies in Canada are offering up exotic creatures such as parrots and lemurs for animal-assisted therapy — often with little indication of the animals' and trainers' qualifications.
And with no official standards to regulate animal-assisted therapy, experts are voicing concerns about practices that could put people and animals at risk.
"Taking exotics into a public setting is concerning to me because I work with stable, stable dogs and even with stable dogs you can have some uncertainty and with exotics I can imagine there's a lot of unpredictable stuff that happens," Binfet said.
"So I would be very, very cautious about that."
Kayla Shore, spokeswoman for the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association's animal-assisted therapy chapter, said that for her, it's more about training and ethics than the type of animal involved.
"You will find in Canada a number of untrained practitioners and animals being used in some types of animal-assisted 'therapy' or a practitioner is saying they use animal-assisted therapy when they have no experience as a therapist and no master's degree or professional regulatory body regulating any part of their practice," she said in an email.
"I worry about the potential harm to the client and to the animal, especially if clients are expecting to get therapy but are working with an untrained practitioner."
On its website, the Toronto-based Hands On Exotics says it offers animal-assisted therapy to roughly 300 nursing homes, hospitals, adult day programs, autism and special-needs groups, and other facilities "on a regular basis."
A single visit to a retirement home or hospital costs between $160 and $175, plus a travel surcharge for any out-of-town locations.
The company, which says it owns more than 150 animals, offers to bring about eight exotic animals per hour-long session and tries to visit multiple facilities in the same day.
A job posting for an "animal handler and educator" required a G-level driver's licence, the ability to lift at least 20 kilograms and "experience handling a variety of animals."
When asked to explain its handlers' credentials and animal training, Hands On Exotics did not immediately respond.
Binfet said it's complicated enough working with one species in the controlled environment of a university campus with one type of client, he can't imagine how it works with several types of exotic animals — which are not understood as well — in a variety of settings.
"I would question, is that in the animal's best interest?," he said.