Animal-Assisted Therapy:

A Premise and a Promise

By Phil Arkow

 

Definition

of Terms

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"A pet is an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world. Friendship retains its traditional values and securities in one's relationship with one's pet. Whether a dog, cat, bird, fish, turtle, or what have you, one can rely upon the fact that one's pet will always remain a faithful, intimate, non-competitive friend -- regardless of the good or ill fortune life brings us."

- Dr. Boris Levinson, child psychologist

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) -- the planned inclusion of an animal in a treatment plan -- and animal-assisted activities (AAA) -- the use of animals in recreational and visitation programs to help people with special needs - and their spin-off interventions such as equine-assisted psychotherapy, "cell dog" or prison pet programs, and reading interventions using dogs -- are based on an age-old concept. Pets are a friendly, non-threatening common denominator in American homes.

Pets are truly common experiences for most people. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 81.7 million cats, 72 million dogs, 11.2 million birds, 7.3 million horses, 75.9 million fish, and millions of other pets share our homes. Households with pets are overwhelmingly likely to be parents with children. The rate of pet ownership is four times higher in the U.S. than in industrialized nations of Europe and five times higher than Japan. It's been reported that more American families have pets than have children. Americans spend more money on pet food than on baby food. It's been reported that an American child is more likely to have a pet than a live-at-home father.

Pets are dynamic examples of psychological symbiosis: pets need people to care for them, and most people love to care for pets, which includes caring for their loved ones by getting the top pet supplies and medications they need. Medical practitioners, psychologists, social workers, reading specialists, occupational and physical therapists, health care professionals and others in many different fields are tapping this unique human-animal bond for its potential therapeutic value.

For example, close to half of the psychiatrists, psychologists, and family practice physicians responding to a survey reported that they have prescribed pets for their patients to combat loneliness, depression, and other emotional problems including inactivity and stress. In a random sampling, 57% of psychiatrists, 48% of psychologists, and 40% of family practice physicians reported recommending animals for companionship, to provide unconditional affection and warmth, to provide a focus or perspective, amusement, and a feeling of being needed.

In one study, 90% of pet owners said their pet was "extremely important" or "very important" to them. 87% considered their pets members of the family, 50% kept pictures of their pets at home or work or in their billfolds, and 50% allowed their pets to sleep with family members. 15% celebrated their pets' birthdays. In an age of where traditional extended families are disappearing, 79% of pet owners said that sometimes their pet was their closest companion.

Why should this be? Many people have fond memories of pets or farm animals. Growing up with a furry, affectionate friend is a satisfying part of most persons' childhoods. Many of our abilities to form healthy, adult relationships may stem from our first joyful experiences with pets. Household animals may be treasured pals with whom children can share innermost dreams, secret thoughts, private moments and companionship during lonely or stressful times. Pets may help teach children the responsibilities of daily living, compassion for other creatures who share our planet, and the cycles of life and death. They may help build self-esteem and self-confidence.

 

PETS AND MENTAL HEALTH

"A dog is man's best friend because he wags his tail and not his tongue."

--- Dr. Samuel Corson

Animals in a home may serve as a talisman against loneliness and depression. They may add a sense of safety and protection. They may encourage physical activity and social interaction with one's neighbors. They can be the focus of hobbies and opportunities for club interests. They may be the substitutes for absent children. The responsibilities and daily rituals of care may provide a touchstone of reality. They may divert one's cares and troubles. They are socially-acceptable conversation pieces and opportunities for touching.

There is greater "plasticity" in pet/human relationships than in most human/human relationships: rules regulating roles in parental, sibling, marital and friendship relationships are more socially structured and codified. Pets can be "all things to all people."

Pets may serve as a "clock," providing a sense of order and a daily ritual. Pets may give us a realistic, naturalistic touchstone, a baseline of animal behavior against which we can sometimes compare our own troubles and put our own lives into perspective:

Pets have frequently been described as non-threatening and non-judgmental companions. "The unambivalent nature of the exchange of affection between people and animals differs from exchanges with close family members and other relatives. Pets are a source of comfort that can be scheduled on demand of the owner, in almost any quantity, without bargaining or supplication," argued researchers Aaron Katcher and Erika Friedmann.

"Perhaps the most important health-related aspect of the human-animal relationship is play," said Robert Fagen of the University of Pennsylvania. "Animals that play are healthier and frequently live longer than those that don't. I would be willing to bet that interacting with an animal makes a person more sensitive in relationships with other humans."

The presence of pets in a household seems to contribute to the development of children's trust and self-esteem. Pets have also been observed to contribute to the development of ego strength in people in institutions.

PETS AND PHYSIOLOGICAL HEALTH

"In today's highly specialized and complex society, modern Man comes into contact with more people in one day than our ancestors did in a lifetime. It has become necessary to speed up the process of attachments, and it is more difficult to develop meaningful relationships....Loneliness is not knowing others: it is not being known by others....Dogs permit their owners to be themselves so that they can risk self-disclosure and form attachments."

--- Judy Harris

There is increasing evidence that the emotional and psychological benefits of pet companionship have physiological counterparts as well -- that pets improve not only the intangible "quality of life" but also improve human health. Research has demonstrated that petting and caring for animals - particularly those with whom a bonded relationship has been established - can reduce blood pressure and heart rate and improve survival rates from heart disease.Contemplation of a fish tank during dental treatment and oral surgery can reduce anxiety. Walking dogs may help fight the epidemic of obesity.

Residential and animal-visitation programs have a long and established history in long-term care facilities for the elderly -- and for the even greater population of seniors who live at home. Seniors have discovered that a pet can be incorporated into their senior care plan because pets can help them maintain independent living. Elderly people who have pets visit physicians 16% less often than do those who do not, and that dog owners, in particular, make 21% fewer visits. Several studies report that pets can be a useful intervention to increase socialization and decrease verbal aggression and anxiety among patients with dementia.

Pets contribute to community health as well. The presence of pets has been shown to improve "social capital" -- the glue that holds a community together. People with pets are more active in civic affairs, use community recreational facilities more frequently, vote more often, and are more interactive with their neighbors. It takes more trust to ask your neighbor to look after your cat while you're on vacation than it does to borrow a cup of sugar. Pets improve a neighborhood's sense of security.

The key to animal-assisted therapy, then, is that animals in general, and companion animals more commonly, are regarded by many as "man's best friends." Dependent, dependable, domesticated animals may provide people with unconditional regard, present perpetually juvenile attributes (neoteny) which stimulate innate nurturing responses, and offer a sense of mastery and constant, non-judgmental acceptance and companionship. They may serve as catalysts to social interaction and as bridges to interpersonal communication and attachment.

Animal-Assisted Therapy:

A Premise and a Promise

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