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Animals and Mental Health

Animals and Mental Health

24th March 2019 by Centred Counselling0

For many people, animals have proven to have a significant impact on mental health and it is suggested that simply the presence of an animal can have a very calming influence.

Animals and humans have been intertwined for aeons, with sheep and goats being the first to be domesticated roughly 11,000 years ago. Since then, humans have domesticated hundreds of other species – the most popular being dogs, cats, birds, rodents and various reptiles. This has developed into training certain species into being able to assist us in various aspects of our society e.g service animals, therapy animals, search and rescue dogs, police dogs/horses, detection dogs etc. Not only are animals a big part of our society (with pets of Instagram such as Jiffpom, Doug the Pug and Grumpy Cat having over 10 million followers combined), but they are a big part of our families and hold special places in the hearts of their owners.

Anyone with a pet will be able to tell you that there is always that special connection between them. This could be due to the fact that a lot of domesticated species, dogs and cats for example, tend to live for around ten to fifteen years – creating an intense bond and level of companionship that some may struggle to find elsewhere. Psychiatrist and author of ‘The Power of Different’, Gail Saltz, suggests that this could be due to their presence and unconditional love creating a calming and reassuring atmosphere for owners, as well as their need for interaction matching ours. She states that a lot of people are drawn to having pets as ‘The need to care for them provides structure, purpose, and being needed’, which for a lot of people can have a huge impact on their life and level of self-worth.

Animals have that special way of making us feel loved and adored which, for many struggling with mental health problems, can boost self-esteem. Psychologist John Mayer suggests that they provide love and devotion without question or consequence, stating that ‘their calmness provides a mindfulness experience for their adult partners’. Steven Feldman conducted a study which compliments this statement, as he created a survey of pet owners and found 74% reported mental health improvements through owning a pet. A further 75% of pet owners reported similar findings in regards to friends or family members due to having pets in their lives. Mayer’s calls this mutually beneficial human-animal bond ‘The Pet Effect’, as it has been found that having a pet has positive impacts on the health and well-being of both species due to constant companionship, love and affection.

Not only have animals become strongly integrated into our lives, but they have can now further assist those with mental health problems through the use of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). AAT dates back all the way to the ancient Greeks, as history suggests they would use various animals (horses in particular) to improve the physical and mental health of patients. It was believed that horses specifically had great healing powers, as Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about therapeutic riding dating back as early as 400BC. Now, in the 21st Century, animals are used in a variety of settings such as nursing homes, hospitals, and mental health institutions.

Canine Assisted Therapy, for example, uses dogs who are trained to remain in a calm state in order to assist the client in remaining calm also. The therapy dog may lean against the client or occasionally nudge them with their nose in order to show support through constant body contact. This can greatly help those with anxiety and those who are combating trust issues to engage socially due to having that constant, unconditional comfort. Due to this, Canine Assisted Therapy is more widely used for those with PTSD, ADHD, ASD and dementia as it has been shown to drastically improve the physical, cognitive, behavioural and emotional aptitudes of the clients.

A study conducted by Hoagwood KE, Acri M, Morrissey M and Peth-Pierce R (01-25-2016) compared children who were only receiving cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) to children who were receiving Animal Assisted Therapy as well as CBT. Their results showed that although both therapies were effective in reducing the severity of symptoms for those with ADHD, the children who had experienced both CBT as well as Animal Assisted Therapy showed a greater reduction of symptoms than those who were being treated with the CBT alone.

Similar results were found regarding clients suffering from PTSD when receiving Animal Assisted Therapy. Gillett J and Weldrick R (2014) suggest in ‘Effectiveness of psychiatric service dogs in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans’ that dogs affected veterans with PTSD two ways: directly and indirectly. The direct effects included a decrease in blood pressure and anxiety, whereas indirect effects involved an increase in social interactions and the ability to partake in everyday activities that they may not have felt capable of beforehand. This suggests that Animal Assisted Therapy can help alleviate intrusion symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and severe psychological distress, by providing a reminder that there is no danger present.

Wilson’s (1984) biophilia hypothesis explains that our attachment to animals could stem from the idea that, to survive, humans hundreds of years ago would interpret signals from animals in the surrounding environment to determine whether or not the area was safe. This hypothesis suggests that when we see animals which are calm and peaceful, this innately signals to us that we, too, are safe and secure. This may then lead to a state of mind where a person struggling with mental health problems, such as PTSD, can sense this calmness and feel safe in different environments.

However, Animal Assisted Therapy is not strictly limited to mental health conditions. There are Canine Assisted Reading programmes which facilitate children with special educational needs through utilizing the calm, non-judgemental, loving behaviours of the dogs in order to increase the self-confidence and self-esteem of the children. Fung S (2017) suggests that it’s due to these behaviours that it would be a massive benefit to incorporate dogs into assisted learning and educational programmes.

More often than not it is easy to overlook how much animals really impact our lives, especially as a lot of it may occur over time subconsciously. Animals offer us something that many people are sometimes incapable of giving, or others may struggle to find. Their unconditional love is immeasurable, as is ours. It is due to this, and more, that they will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Cover image courtesy of:

Ancaro Project

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