All creatures great and small

Pet owners have known it all along: keeping a pet has a positive influence on your health. Only recently, the scientific community has shown interest in investigating this influence. Studies have shown that pet owners have lower blood pressure, are less likely to be depressed and have higher self-esteem than people who don’t have pets. Caring for a companion animal brings joy and a sense of connection to one’s life.

In the history of human ideas concerning the origins and treatment of illness and disease, nonhuman animals play a variety of important roles. For instance, the particular notion that dogs could heal injuries or sores by touching or licking them persisted well into the Christian era. The close companionship of a small dog was being recommended to the ladies of Elizabethan England as a remedy for a variety of diseases. The famous nurse Florence Nightingale thought a small pet animal an excellent companion for the sick.

Pet therapy is especially beneficial for children. (© Tifonimages –

Pet therapy is especially beneficial for children. (© Tifonimages –

Recorded use of pets as therapists dates back to 1699 when John Locke advocated giving children dogs, squirrels, birds, or “any such thing” to look after as a means of encouraging them to develop tender feelings and a sense of responsibility for others.

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung already used animals in their psychotherapy. They observed a growing sense of alienation in their patients. By establishing positive relationships with real animals, such as dogs, cats, and other pets, they thought, it should be possible to restore a healing connection with our own unconscious animal natures.

The first to come up with the idea of pet therapy was child psychologist Boris Levinson in 1962. He found that during therapy sessions, children communicated easier when his dog was present. His ideas met with cynicism and disdain by many colleagues. The situation has not changed that much, despite much more research and some supporting data.

“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”
Bern Williams, American consultant

Evidence supports the proposition that animals enhance health. Different types of interaction with animals may have specific health effects. There is consistent evidence that just observing animals considered as friendly is associated with direct positive impact on health including decreasing physiological arousal and making people feel safer and happier. Interacting with a companion animal is associated with direct anti-arousal effects and decreases in depression.

Not all animals give a feeling of safety. (© erlire –

Not all animals give a feeling of safety. (© erlire –

Nonetheless, responses to animals are a highly individual matter, depending on the person’s previous life experience with animals, the person’s current health and responsibilities, and the species and breeds of animals.

Many different animals are being used for therapeutic purposes. Not every type of animal or each specific individual creature is suited for the job though.

Dogs account for the overwhelming percentage of animals used, reflecting the strong contribution of enthusiastic volunteers with well-trained dogs who enjoy sharing their animals during periodic visits.

Cats are ideal companions when a low level of interactions, or no vigorous interaction, is desired. The ideal cat for therapy work is one that enjoys being petted and seeks out human attention.

Therapeutic horseback riding and equine therapy require an extensively managed horse, a professional facility, and expert supervision. The gait of a horse has been shown to closely resemble the rhythm of normal human walking. The horse’s movements provide feedback to the rider’s neurological system and that, in turn, influences the rider’s posture, muscle tone, balance, motor functioning, and sensory processing.

Horses don't only give friendship, but the horse's movements influence the rider's neurological system positively. (© Zlatan Durakovic –

Horses don’t only give friendship, but the horse’s movements influence the rider’s neurological system positively. (© Zlatan Durakovic –

Smaller animals, like birds, small mammals, and fish, offer the advantage of being more easily confined, and thus may be more acceptable in housing and institutional settings. Apart from being useful to work on fine-motor skills through holding and petting, small animals are also very helpful in teaching responsibility through learning to care for a small, vulnerable animal. Working with the small animals teaches the participants about the fragility of life. Proven results are that they learn to control their aggression, curb their tempers, and acquire gentility.

Farm animals are also being used as therapeutic interventions. Positive results of these interactions for people with mental impairment and emotional problems include improved communications, an increased feeling of worth, and a sense of being needed.

In some cases non-domestic animals play a role in improving human health. Capuchin monkeys have been trained to perform as service animal. But most of these cases are questionable and have raised strong protests from animal activists. Wild animals shouldn’t be captured and put to use for human benefits that could also be generated in other ways, they believe. Only exceptional circumstances, such as wildlife rehabilitation, allow for non-domestic species being part of a human therapy program.

One non-domestic animal type has become very popular for therapeutic purposes: the dolphin. Dolphins are seen as useful in therapy thanks to their intelligence level and the stress-reducing capabilities of water. Researchers have found that dolphin-assisted therapy aids in reducing stress and increasing relaxation, alleviating depression, boosting production of infection fighting T-cells, stimulating production of endorphins and hormones, enhancing recovery, and reducing pain.

It is debatable whether dolphin therapy is as good for the dolphins involved as it is for humans. (© 16to9foto –

It is debatable whether dolphin therapy is as good for the dolphins involved as it is for humans. (© 16to9foto –

It is not clear yet what causes these changes and whether they can be obtained in other ways as well. This would be especially useful since dolphins seem to suffer in captivity as shown by the fact that they don’t live as long as their wild relatives. The exploit of dolphins for economic gain is a major concern. Dolphins are wild animals deserving of their freedom, according to Australian environmental planner Jim Curtis. They are not ‘faith healers’ capable of remarkable cures.

Having animals visit hospitals and other health institutions and participate in therapy sessions may generate safety risks. Animals may bite or carry some kind of disease. Incorporation of animals in health care treatment is the result of a dynamic relationship between the client or patient and the animal. But also the animal’s handler is integral to the animal’s functioning. Primary criteria for selecting animals for a therapy job are reliability, predictability, controllability, suitability, and ability to inspire confidence.

“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”
Alan Alexander Milne, English author

It is generally recognised that human-animal interactions may provide benefits, such as empathy, outward focus, nurturing, rapport, acceptance, entertainment, socialisation, mental stimulation, physical contact and physiological benefits, to adults and children in a variety of human care facilities. But what about the animal itself? What about its health and welfare? What do these contacts do to the animal? They are not simply tools for making people healthier or happier, but are beings in their own right. A bond must be bi-directional with significant benefits for both parties. More attention should be paid to the animal part in research studies concerning animal-assisted therapy.

Animal helpers

There are many ways in which therapy animals help people. The guide dog is the most well-known of course. (© Jeroen van den Brink –

There are many ways in which pets help people. The dog that guides, is the most well-known of course. (© Jeroen van den Brink –

Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) provide opportunities for motivational, educational, recreational, and/or therapeutic benefits to enhance quality of life. AAA are delivered in a variety of environments by specially trained professionals, paraprofessionals, and/or volunteers, in association with animals that meet specific criteria. Animal-assisted activities are the casual “meet and greet” activities that involve pets visiting people.

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialised expertise, and within the scope of practice of his profession. AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning. AAT is provided in a variety of settings and may be group or individual in nature. This process is documented and evaluated.

Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (AACR) is an advanced form of AAA/AAT, where teams are trained to respond in more intense emotional and environmental situations than usually encountered with AAA/AAT.

Human-Animal Support Services (HASS) enhance and encourage the responsible and humane interrelationship of people, animals, and nature. A person who provides HASS may be a professional, paraprofessional or trained volunteer. The services target support to the pet/animal owner. HASS programs help keep persons with chronic/terminal illnesses or disabilities together for as long as possible with their current animal companions in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Therapy animals are not service animals. A service animal is defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act as any animal individually trained to assist a person with a disability. This can include guide, mobility, sound alert, seizure alert, and emotional support work.


Pets © aleksandr –

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