Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Animals and emotion
Animals and emotion: What your pet can do for you
"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. (Levinson, 1962, p. 59)" (as cited in Mano, Mikulincer & Shaver, 2011).
Throughout history animals have been acknowledged and respected as essential partners in human survival, health and healing (Walsh, 2009). Many cultures have embraced animals as part of their religion, art and spirituality. The animal human bond expands across all areas of a person’s life, from hunting partner to guardian and guide, the animal has always been a valued companion. Today this bond is clearly still valued, with 63% of US households (73% with children) currently having at least one pet (Walsh, 2009). Some have said that our goal in life should be to love, and be loved, by a human as much as we love – and are loved by- our pets (Walsh, 2009). A love that is unconditional, forgiving and uncomplicated.
Research has shown interacting with animals has a range of positive effects including lowering blood pressure, aiding development of motor skills (balance, coordination and posture), decreasing feelings of loneliness, despair and isolation and can act as a facilitator for human social interaction (Hatch, 2007). Miller et al examined the changes in oxytocin levels after interaction with one’s own dog after separation while at work for a day (2009). Oxytocin is a neuropeptide recognised for its effects on bonding, socialisation and stress relief (Miller et al., 2009). Research is divided but shows some support for the calming effect of pet interaction on stress, in the form of a positive correlation between pet interaction and oxytocin levels (Miller et al., 2009). Notably this study found oxytocin levels only to show an increase significantly when participants interacted with their own bonded dog, with unfamiliar dogs causing a statistically insignificant increase. (Miller et al., 2009).
Research has also found other general benefits of pet ownership including reduced cardiac problems, psychosocial benefits and fitness benefits (Miller et al., 2009). Cat owners have been found to demonstrate fewer psychiatric disturbances than non-cat owners (Miller et al., 2009). Back to the idea of owning a pet lowering your blood pressure though, that seems too good to be true! While this statement is in fact true, this is a common example of the inflation of research findings in the media. Scientific studies have found correlations between pet ownership and blood pressure levels but there are multiple factors at play and psychologists emphasise owning a pet should in no way be a replacement for prescription medication for any health condition (Allen, 2003). This aside, some of the factors which could contribute to a lowered blood pressure level in pet owners arise from the support and companionship provided by pets (Allen, 2003). Pets are often seen as non-judgemental and many owners talk to their pets about problems an act which in itself has been shown to be helpful for health and well-being (Allen, 2003). One study showed that participants performed better and faster on arithmetic testing when their pet was present compared to a spouse or friend (Allen, 2003). Previous studies have also found a significant decrease in blood pressure and stress responses for stockbrokers who adopted a pet (Allen, 2003). In addition to this, ownership of an active pet like a dog or horse requires the owner to exercise with their pet increasing their overall cardiac and general fitness, which can lower blood pressure.
When examining the health benefits of pet ownership it is important to acknowledge most of the time studies have found correlations between pet ownership and relevant factors. There may be many factors at work however or people who own pets may be inclined to be healthy in their lives overall. Furthermore benefits of pets may be limited to a person’s personality type, if a person has high anxiety levels or prior dislike for animals the addition of a pet may increase stress or void health benefits others would achieve (Allen, 2003). Recently, longitudinal studies have emerged with stronger support for the benefits of pets however (Walsh, 2009). One such study found that people who continuously owned a pet were the healthiest compared to those who no longer owner one, or never had one, this relationship remained significant even after controlling for factors of gender, age, marital status, income and other health variables (Walsh, 2009).
Super sensory heroes?
The heightened sensory perception skills of some animals have been found to be useful in detecting early signs of cancer and critical medical situations (Walsh, 2009). In particular, dogs have been trained to detect high/low blood sugar in diabetic owners with positive outcomes (Rooney, Morant & Guest, 2013). Increasing quality of life for their owners and reducing the number of hospital call-outs. In a nursing home, one study found that the resident cat, Oscar, sensed the impending death of residents, going to their rooms and curling up on the bed with them. Staff would then call family members to say their goodbyes (Walsh, 2009). While the science behind how an animal could do this is still not clear, the accuracy rate of animals like Oscar in these situations proposes it to be more than intuition or ‘voodoo magic’ as some would assume.
Pet based therapy is a widely useful and applicable concept, it is used within many arenas including correctional facilities, within both the normal classroom and for those with developmental struggles, with the elderly, mentally ill or even the physically ill. The benefits of pet therapy are seemingly endless.
The use of various animal programs in correctional facilities has been shown to decrease incidents of aggression and problem behaviours, as well as decreasing levels of depression and with positive effects on self-esteem (Hatch, 2007).
Biological anthropologists have found dogs to demonstrate an amazing ability to read human cues and behaviour, able to accurately interpret even subtle hand gestures and glances (Walsh, 2009). This makes dogs perfect as companions for mental health patients, with the potential to not only notice when a person’s mood has altered but also have the initiative to change this or alert someone. They have even be used in schizophrenia cases, where patients often find it easier to establish and maintain a relationship with a pet (Walsh, 2009).
The benefits of animals have been incorporated into both the psychological and medical fields through program such as Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal Assisted Activities (AAA). While Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) refers to programs using pets to achieve specific therapeutic goals or benefits, Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) refers to programs where animals may simply be visiting or in contact with a population with no specific goals other than companionship (Hatch, 2007). Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is the more common, 'umbrella term' for a diverse range of therapeutic approaches, used with people of all ages, in which an animal is an integral part of the treatment (Mano et al., 2011). While AAA provides a looser framework both engage with the person and provide opportunities for motivational, educational, recreational, and/or therapeutic benefits for optimal recovery and functioning, positive development, and enhanced quality of life (Walsh, 2009).
Testimonials from multiple fields as well as academic and medical studies show that pet based therapy in the form of AAA/AAT can help in a multitude of ways including, but not limited to; helping patients in hospital recover, providing support and companionship for those facing emotional difficulties, encouraging physically disabled to perform tasks strengthening their speech and motor skills, encouraging children to read, calming distressed patients and raising the spirits of the terminally ill (Hatch, 2007).
A range of animals are used for AAA and AAT programs including dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, gerbils, ferrets, horses, dolphins, birds, pot-bellied pigs, farm animals (llamas, goats, cows) and monkeys (Hatch, 2007). For further reading on the different animal programs and their effectiveness see: Link to external links? For a detailed look at AAT/AAA see Animal assisted therapy and emotional health and well-being
Aspects of attachment theory are often used in the designing of AAT programs, centering around the unique characteristics of the human-animal bond. Literature on the human- pet bond indicates that this relationship often meets the four prerequisites for an attachment bond. These are proximity seeking, safe haven, secure base and separation distress, and as such pets can be seen as attachment figures (Mano, Mikulincer & Shaver, 2011). Research with self-reports of owners supports this theory integration (Mano et al., 2011).
The key thing to remember when looking at the therapeutic benefits of animals is that positive experience can lead the way towards more secure interpersonal attachments and re-evaluation or modification of maladaptive prior attachment models and orientations in a person (Levinson as cited in Mano et al., 2011). This does however rely also on the guidance and mediation efforts of a therapist for the person. One problem with pet therapy based around attachment theory is that often contact with pet is restricted to be during therapy session and this can impact the attachment formed (Mano et al., 2011). However this is not to say this kind of therapy wouldn’t be useful, it can still help identify and modify attachment styles of patients, particularly those with an insecure attachment history, these people often find it easier to form relationships with an animal rather than a human (Mano et al., 2011). The effectiveness of AAT has been tied to numerous theories, one of which attributes its success to ‘contact comfort’ (Halm, 2008). Suggesting a tactile process by which unconditional attachment bonds are formed between humans and animals which leads to a number of benefits mentioned throughout this chapter (Halm, 2008).
Netting, Wilson & New, identify key areas of three theories relevant to pet based therapy (1987):
(Netting, Wilson & New, 1987)
Pets and children
In our western society animals and pets play an astoundingly significant role in the lives of children. From their toys as a baby, room décor and clothing, to the fairy tales, story books and early educational tools, all commonly feature animals as central characters (Serpell, 1999). Walt Disney has animals as influential if not central characters in almost all of his films. But real life animals take on a much more interactive ad beneficial role in the lives of children. Studies have shown over 90% of children if they do not already own a pet express a desire to do so (Serpell, 1999). Parents believe companion animals teach responsibility, caring attitudes, provide companionship, security, comfort, amusement and are an outlet for affection (Serpell, 1999). Research examining the interactions between child and animal have demonstrated marked benefits physiologically, emotionally and socially (Friesen, 2010). Have a child who hates going to the doctor or dentist? Studies have shown the presence of a pet during these encounters lowers blood pressure and heart rate (Friesen, 2010).
Animals in both real life and as fictional characters capture a child’s imagination and teach enduring lessons about life love and loss (Walsh, 2009). Take Charlotte’s Web teaching young children about the special relationship between Wilbur and Charlotte, about sadness when Charlotte dies and the importance of grief, normality of death and the forming of new attachments (Walsh, 2009). Pets are also use to treat emotionally disturbed children as well as developmental disorders. Originating with Levinson (1969) a psychologist who found young patients more able to interact with his dog ‘Jingles’, utilised his dog as both an ice-breaker and medium through which children could express unconscious conflicts, worries and fears (Serpell, 1999). More recent research found a young girl used her pet guinea pigs in a metaphoric description of her own problems, rather than speaking directly about them to the psychologist (Serpell, 1999). Levinson believed children with parental mistreatment/neglect had experienced so much hurt at the hands of people in their close environment that only after the development of a satisfactory relationship with an animal can they start developing positive human relationships (Levinson as cited in Mano et al., 2011).
In the classroom inclusion of animals into the learning environment is used to help achieve educational objectives such as pronunciation or spelling and this can be both through AAT and AAA programs (Friesen, 2010). For instance, school-based and library programs, such as ‘‘Sit Stay Read!’’ in Chicago, help children overcome shyness, anxiety, learning difficulties, and classroom embarrassment by having them read aloud to a visiting pet, who is attentive and nonjudgmental. (Walsh, 2009) So why do children relate well to pets? Levinson suggested it was due to the animal’s ability to offer a non-threatening, non-judgemental and unconditional attention and affection (Serpell, 1999). Levinson showed us that we can used animals to create relationships with clients who previously had been non responsive to human only contact (Friesen, 2010).
Pets and older people
When older people enter retirement villages or care centres they lose some social aspects to their lives which can be detrimental both physically and psychologically (Prosser, Townsend & Staiger, 2008). Studies have shown that having companion animals to regularly interact with can improve the health and well-being of residents and promote their capacity for building relationships (Prosser et al., 2008). The associated changes with entering a retirement home including moving away from family, the loss of a spouse and generally reduced social interaction have led to up to 84% of the older population indicating they experience loneliness (Prosser et al., 2008). So how can you reduce these feelings of loneliness? With an animal companion of course! While most of the research has focused around dogs as companion animals, due to their common carrying of the characteristics necessary for a companion animal other animals are also used including cats, birds and rabbits to name a few (Prosser et al., 2008). Having an animal companion has been shown to reduce these feelings of loneliness, encourage further human social interactions and provide both an outlet for giving and receiving affection (Prosser et al., 2008).
Challenges and problems
While the prevalent perspective is what can animals do for us?, it is important to consider what these programs do for (or to) the animals involved. Research has shown animals to be complex creatures capable of experiencing emotions and as such further research is needed to improve the quality of experience for animals involved in AAA/AAT programs (Hatch, 2007).
Some research has pointed out the potential for inhumane or inappropriate training methods for pets used in therapy as well as the occupational risks associated with long hours, potentially aggressive patients and general accidents (Hatch, 2007). These risks could lead to both mental and physical harm including stress, fear, dehydration, fatigue and discomfort. The same study undertook observation of dogs and cats used for AAT in retirement homes and found a number of animals exhibited nervousness and stressed behaviours at times, particularly cats. The research in this area highlights a need for more consideration of animals within these programs and suggests AAA/AAT program should benefit both the humans and animals involved (Hatch, 2007).
The two biggest concerns of adults regarding pets is cleanliness and allergies (Friesen, 2010). However in the modern day, many dogs and cats have been bred to reduce or elimination allergic reactions in humans, and cleanliness varies with breed and training. See Hypoallergenic Dog Breeds
Not all studies looking at animal therapies have shown positive outcomes either. Benefits may depend on the personality of the person involved, may only be short term or in some cases have no effect (Hatch, 2007). The most obvious negative effect of pets on humans is the potential distress on the human associated with the pet becoming ill or dying (Hatch, 2007). This presents a risk of losing all the benefits gained or needing to form new bonds with another animal in order to continue working with a patient. Further research is needed to clearly identify the areas pet therapy can be most effective and areas where other alternative should be sought.
Pets are an important part of most peoples lives, this chapter has aimed to highlight the important role they can play within a therapeutic setting and generally enhancing our quality of life. AAT/AAA are just some of the ways this can be achieved, research acknowledge the special animal human bond in both theory and research, with the recognition that there are many benefits to be gained. Further research is needed into the area of pet therapy to strengthen evidence supporting its use and further examine the most effective methods and animals to achieve the benefits mentioned throughout this chapter.
One thing can be certain, the presence of the right pet in someone's life can greatly improve their physical, mental and social well-being, under the guidance of psychologists of course, we can't let the pets take all the credit!!
Are you a dog person?
Are you a cat person?
Remember! All pets are different, all pets need time and care. Take care when choosing a pet and try to match its personality with yours!
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