The notion that animals benefit human health and wellbeing has become a widespread belief.
The notion that animals benefit human health and wellbeing has become a widespread belief. Since the beneficial effects are not universal for all people and circumstances, there are qualifiers: pets are not like aspirin, where the effects are somewhat consistent. If behavioral problems arise, or other responsibilities lead to a person being overburdened, a relationship that has been pleasant can become stressful. Some broad psychosocial effects are associated with the presence of companion animals, as documented in many studies and reviewed in Hart (2006).
Beneficial effects are most readily documented among persons who are vulnerable in some way and may have a lasting disease or disability. The obvious goal of an animal-assisted intervention in such circumstances is to enrich the person's life and perhaps serve a compensatory role for something that is lacking. For people who are not currently enduring serious problems such as extreme stress or a disability, an animal also can enhance the quality of life.
The comfort and contentment offered by animals is documented in a large number of studies with vulnerable people, including children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, disease, or loneliness. The protection against loneliness was shown in studies of elderly or college women living alone or with a pet, and with elderly people receiving animal-assisted therapy in a nursing home.
A calming effect was shown for people with Alzheimer's disease who still live at home (Fritz, Farver, Hart, and Kass, 1995), for people in a psychiatric ward when an animal was present (Barak, Savorai, Mavashev, and Beni, 2001), and for hyperactive children participating in a classroom or farm program (Katcher and Wilkins, 1997). Other examples of the calming effect involved children with Down's syndrome in their classroom, a reduced frequency of seizures for people with seizure dogs, and reduced anxiety for psychiatric patients with animal-assisted therapy.
A lower level of depression was found among bereaved elderly with few friends who had a companion animal, versus those without an animal. Depression was reduced among men using an aviary in a nursing home, elderly people in rehabilitation given a bird, and college students given animal-assisted therapy. For people with AIDS, the presence of a companion animal was associated with a buffering of depression.
Although many studies have focused on the use of dogs, cats are preferable for some people because of the reduced requirements for care and interaction. Cats were a more compatible pet than dogs in one study for people with AIDS. Another reported that having a cat was associated with elderly women having less depression and loneliness.
Two recent papers presented meta-analyses of animal-assisted therapy. One found effects for autism-spectrum symptoms, medical difficulties, behavioral problems, and emotional well-being (Nimer and Lundahl, 2007). The second study found that animal-assisted activities and therapy were associated with fewer depressive symptoms (Souter and Miller, 2007).
Animals have an "ice-breaking" capability of putting people at ease. They normalize and elicit social behavior, even among strangers, as shown with adults and children who use wheelchairs and have service dogs (Eddy, Hart, and Boltz, 1988; Mader, Hart, and Bergin, 1989) and people with hearing loss who have hearing dogs. People who have companion animals are perceived as being more attractive and are trusted more. They are given more friendly social approaches, and then the animals easily serve as a favored topic of conversation.
In institutional settings, animal-assisted activities result in improved socializing. This was demonstrated in a psychiatric facility for elderly women, in a residential home, among residents of a nursing home with Alzheimer's disease, among elderly men, and among elderly schizophrenic patients.
Less well-known are the powerful motivating effects of animals to inspire people to consistently engage in activities with their animals. The animal can facilitate a sustained commitment for the activities. Dogs are highly capable of persuading family members to take them for a walk or toss them a ball. This influence results in increased exercise and time outdoors, especially for elderly people who perhaps otherwise would not be so engaged.
In classrooms, children with developmental disorders or hyperactivity show a capability to remain more focused with a dog present. Perhaps the most pervasive example is the widespread practice in every community of people visiting nursing homes to share their animals as animal-assisted activities. The enjoyment of sharing the animal provides the motivation to continue this activity.
People become more relaxed in the presence of an animal. Talking to an animal, or reading in the presence of an animal, is less stressful than talking or reading without the animal there. Even looking at fish in an aquarium induces relaxation. The serious examination of the physiological effects of human-animal interactions was launched by following the survival rates for people who had experienced a heart attack a year previously. Although the study by then-graduate student Erica Friedmann involved just under 100 patients, the result was significant in showing a beneficial association with companion animals (Friedmann, Katcher, Lynch, and Thomas, 1980), A followup study with more patients also found a healthful association with dog ownership and social support (Friedmann and Thomas, 1995). Other studies have documented the more favorable cardiovascular indicators in pet owners, and the improved blood pressure levels when relaxing with an animal.
Beneficial effects of association with companion animals have been reported in an array of contexts with various human populations. Search tools for the research literature are available at the UC Davis Companion Animal Behavior Program website, http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/CCAB/main.htm
Barak, Y., Savorai, O., Mavashev, S., and Beni, A. 2001. Animal-assisted therapy for elderly schizophrenic patients: A one-year controlled trial. American Jouranl of Geriatric Psychiatry 57A, M428-M432.
Eddy, J., Hart, L.A., and Boltz, R.P. 1988. The effects of service dogs on social acknowledgements of people in wheelchairs. Journal of Psychology 122, 39-45.
Friedmann, E., Katcher, A.H., Lynch, J.J., and Thomas, S.A. 1980. Animal companions and one year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit. Public Health Reports 95, 307-312.
Friedmann, E. and Thomas, S.A. Pet ownership, social support, and one-year survival after acute myocardial infarction in the Cardiac Arrhythmic Suppression Trial (CAST). American Journal of Cardiology 76, 1213-1217.
Fritz, C.L., Farver, T.B., Hart, L.A., and Kass, P. 1995. Association with companion animals and the expression of noncognitive symptoms in Alzheimer's patients. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 181, 359-363.
Hart, L. A. 2006. Community context and psychosocial benefits of animal companionship. In: Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, 2nd ed. (A. Fine, ed.), pp. 73-94. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Katcher, A., and Wilkins, G.G. 1997. Animal-assisted therapy in the treatment of behavior disorders in children. In: The Environment and Mental Health: A Guide for Clinicians (A. Lundberg, ed.), pp. 193-204. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Mader, B., Hart, L.A., and Bergin, B. 1989. Social acknowledgements for children with disabilities: Effects of service dogs. Child Development 60, 1528-1534.
Nimer, J., and Lundahl, B. 2007. Animal-assisted therapy: A meta-analysis. Anthrozoos 20, 225-238.
Souter, M. A., and Miller, M. D. 2007. Do animal-assisted activities effectively treat depression: A meta-analysis. Anthrozoos 20, 167-180.