What Is It About Animals That Helps People Heal?

Therapy Dogs Can Be Beneficial

Story at-a-glance -

  • In Britain, 1 in 4 adults experiences some sort of mental health problem each year, most commonly anxiety or depression. But in the U.K., as in the U.S., increasingly, animals are being used in treatment programs to improve the mental health and well-being of patients.
  • Pet therapy programs had their start in the 1960s thanks to an American child psychologist who discovered by accident that the presence of his dog in therapy sessions with a child patient helped to open the boy up.
  • And an Australian Cattle Dog named Sasha, who accompanies her owner, a clinical psychologist working for the U.K.’s National Health Service, on patient visits has made a difference in the lives of a patient with language difficulties, and another with severe depression.
  • The healing benefit of animals is probably linked to a person’s individual mental health and human needs rather than the particular breed of dog involved, or the type of animal.
  • Both horses and cats are also used with good success in treating people with a wide range of mental health concerns.

By Dr. Becker

About 450 million people across the globe have a mental health problem. And in Britain, one in four adults experiences some sort of mental disorder each year, most commonly anxiety or depression.1

According to Caroline Griffith, an animal well-being expert and communications manager for Natures Menu, a U.K. manufacturer of raw pet food, increasingly, animals are being used in treatment programs at hospitals and rehabilitation centers to improve the mental health and well-being of patients.

Pet Therapy Programs Came Into Existence in the 1960s

Current animal assisted therapy or pet therapy programs in which doctors and other clinicians use animals as part of a mental health treatment protocol is thought to have started in the 1960s.

According to Pick the Brain blogger Andrew Tripp, an American child psychologist by the name of Boris Levinson discovered quite by accident that a child he was treating became more open and receptive whenever the doctor’s dog was in the room with them. This revelation opened the door for studies on how animals might help people with a range of mental disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.

Therapy Dogs Can Be Beneficial in Treating a Variety of Mental Health Issues

Tripp cites the example of a clinical psychologist working for the National Health Service who took her nine-year-old Australian Cattle Dog, Sasha, along to patient visits just to see what would happen.

The psychologist observed a new level of awareness in patients Sasha visited. These included stroke patients, people with traumatic brain injuries, people with language problems (dysphasia), those with physical disabilities, and people suffering with depression. What all the patients shared in common was withdrawal from the world and lack of motivation.

In one visit with Sasha, a man with dysphasia was able to say “Alsatian.” As it turned out, he had an Alsatian dog at home. Another patient with severe depression, who was in a wheelchair and never initiated any movements, very slowly and painstakingly reached out his hand to pet Sasha. For her part, Sasha, who was first frightened by wheelchairs, somehow understood she needed to be calm and quiet, and allow herself to be petted.

What Is It About Animals That Helps People Heal?

The question, of course, is what is it about animals that brings out this kind of response in people?

Daniel Allen, founder of the U.K.’s Pet Nation, offers an explanation:

“Since childhood, everybody has had their own personal experiences with animals. Encounters can trigger individual memories, and stimulate those who may be shy or have issues with socializing or communicating. Animals are well-known social lubricants. Interaction can increase confidence and help individuals feel more widely accepted within their community and society.”

Allen also believes the healing benefit of an animal is linked to the person’s mental health and human needs, and is not dependent on a particular dog breed or animal species.

Horses, Cats and Other Species Are Also Used in Animal Assisted Therapy Programs

Many different animals, including horses, are also used in animal assisted therapy studies.

The Mental Health Foundation and Cats Protection, a charitable organization in the U.K., conducted a survey of over 600 people, 50 percent of which described themselves as having a mental health problem. Survey results showed that almost 90 percent of cat owners felt their pet had a positive influence on their well-being. And over 75 percent said they were able to cope better with everyday life due to the presence of their pet.

Respondents reported that their pet’s companionship was most helpful, and that petting their cat was a calming, beneficial activity.

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