Career Special: Zootherapy: Four-legged doctors

Four-legged doctors

Zootherapist Isabelle Berthonneau works with Zsa Zsa, an adorable black spaniel

Zootherapy is a growing profession in Quebec

While zootherapists have long been used in Europe and the United States to provide therapeutic care to the elderly and others, the profession is new to Quebec. "People are starting to realize what zootherapy can bring, but it’s not always easy to bring an animal into a centre," says zootherapist Isabelle Berthonneau. Also an ethologist (someone who studies animal behaviour), she’s been working for the past five years mainly in centres for the elderly.

In zootherapy, the animal (whether a dog, cat, rabbit, chinchilla, etc.) serves as an enabler, helping therapists to connect more quickly with the patient. "When I’m working with a new person, I only have to let my dog point his nose through the door to get a positive reaction. In a few seconds, a relationship is created between the person and me via the animal."

Berthonneau has eight canine colleagues of different sizes, breeds and personalities that she has previously evaluated and trained. "You also have to respect the physical capacities of the animal," she adds. While her background in ethology is vital to her work, Berthonneau believes it’s also necessary to have the desire to help people, love animals, have empathy, be creative and possess a reassuring attitude.

The day of our visit in a Montreal elder-care centre, the zootherapist-ethologist was working with Zsa Zsa, an adorable black spaniel. During the morning, they visited two senior women. They petted the spaniel and chatted with Isabelle who, casually, made them exercise their memory, coordination and motor functions, in addition to reinforcing their self-esteem. For each patient, the specialist established an intervention plan with personalized objectives, over numerous appointments, to answer their specific needs. Depending on the individual, her interventions aim to reduce aggressiveness, unrest, isolation and anxiety, or to improve their posture, mobility, language, autonomy, etc.

There are many zootherapy training programs available. The Corporation des zoothérapeutes du Québec counsels students based on their experience and their professional goals. Since they generally work freelance, zootherapists must find clients, prove themselves and build a reputation in order to have a successful career.

Corporation des zoothérapeutes du Québec (CZQ)

Zootherapy schools
Cégep de La Pocatière:
Centre L’Authentique:
École internationale de zoothérapie:
Institut de zoothérapie:
Zoothérapie Québec:

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