Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Animals and emotion

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Animals and emotion:
What your pet can do for you

Overview[edit | edit source]

Are dogs truly man's best friend...?

"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).

How can this help me?

It means that your pet could unknowingly be reducing your post work day stress levels! What a good dog! Just by owning a pet, you're benefiting your overall emotional and physical health!

Super sensory heroes?[edit | edit source]

A dog's acute sensory perception skills can be useful tools for helping us humans.

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.[grammar?] 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.

How can this help me?

If you have diabetes and find yourself forgetting to check your levels, one of these dogs might be useful in helping you remember.

Uses[edit | edit source]

An example of a companion pet as a helpful co treatment for depression:

Sam, age 23, lived alone, had few friends, and had retreated into a virtual nightlife on his computer. He lost his job, became increasingly depressed, and slept all day. He was fearful of close relationships and avoided contact with his parents, having felt suffocated by his mother’s babying and wary of his father’s harsh criticism. In therapy, he made gains in restructuring his life and getting a new job. Yet he was lonely and anxious about pursuing an intimate relationship. As our therapy progressed, Sam decided to get a puppy, naming her Goldie, and became very attached to her. Goldie also prodded him to get out of bed every morning and kept him responsible to take good care of her. This essential role function also helped him structure his time, stay on track with his job, and get out of his apartment to the park where other ‘‘dog people’’ gathered. Taking Goldie to family dinners made contact with his parents less stressful. At our last session, Sam brought Goldie for me to meet her. Even the receptionist grinned at the resemblance of the golden retriever to his long haired therapist. - Walsh, 2009

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).

Cats have been found to be a soothing companion for many people (Miller at al, 2009)
How can this help me?

If you suffer from a mental illness, having a companion pet may help you rebuild relationships and social networks. Try taking your dog for a walk to the local park and meet some fellow pet owners!

Therapeutic uses[edit | edit source]

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

How can this help me?

Companion animals are useful in a wide range of situations and may be able to help with you with multiple issues in combination with relevant consultation/medication. Talk to you GP or psychologist about AAT programs in your area!

Relevant theories[edit | edit source]

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).

Attachment styles are learned early in life

Netting, Wilson & New, identify key areas of three theories relevant to pet based therapy (1987):

  1. Social Role Theory; a role can be defined as any set of behaviours that has some socially agreed-upon function and for which there exists an accepted code of norms. In our society each stage of our life may be characterised by varying roles. A responsible role that is culturally acceptable for young children is that of a pet owner. With the expectation that this role will lead to the development of a sense of responsibility, provide a confidant for the child and fill hours of activity with play. The pet ownership role can enhance an individuals ability to fulfill needs at different stages of their life.
  2. Exchange Theory; Suggests people engage in relationships only as long as the benefits of their interactions outweigh the costs. Pet ownership for vulnerable persons such as children, the elderly, disabled or incarcerated who have limited interactional opportunities is highly recommended. The benefits for these individuals greatly outweigh the costs.
  3. Life Span Development Theory: Focuses on a person’s individual uniqueness as they progress through life. Interactions experience early on in life may influence later habits/traits. Looking at a person’s history with animals helps psychologists effectively assess the appropriate (if any) companion or therapy animal for that person.

(Netting, Wilson & New, 1987)

How can this help me?

If you find yourself having unhealthy or stressful attachments to boyfriends/girlfriends, maybe look at getting a pet. You could learn more positive attachment styles or even become aware of negative ones!

Pets and children[edit | edit source]

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).

Children often care for pets to learn responsibility

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).

Example of Animal-Assisted Activities in the classroom: Tango, the little white therapy dog, wags her tail in greeting on the school patio as two 5-year-old students prepare to engage in this afternoon’s activities with their speech therapist. Today, the concrete is strewn with a series of colourful shapes with pairs of rhyming word cards placed on top of each (e.g., ‘sat’ and ‘cat’). The children concentrate on saying each of the words correctly, and then get to lift up each colourful shape to see if a paper bone is hidden underneath. In what seems to be a happy trot, Tango follows the students along the trail and sits in anticipation as the children focus on their words. If they find a bone, the children ask the dog to sit (they are working on the initial consonant s) to give her a treat. The students squeal with delight as they give Tango her reward, and they then run to the next shape, seemingly eager to demonstrate to Tango how well they are able to pronounce their words. Their conversation and efforts are punctuated by persistent efforts to maintain Tango’s attention: ‘‘Look Tango, this is the letter s. It says ssss. See Tango?! We got that one right!’’ The teacher marvels at how focused and attentive the children are as they complete this task. When one of the children is asked what they like about having Tango participating in their lessons, she looks at the adult incredulously and asks: ‘‘Don’t you know?! She’s a really good listener!’’ (Friesen, 2010)

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).

How can this help me?

If your child in struggling in school or just hates doing their homework, try incorporating your pet into this activity. Have them read to the cat or get rewards for the dog after set times of working consistently.

Pets and older people[edit | edit source]

A mobility dog is used by his owner to make movement easier

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).


Anne Summerfield was 75 years old and alone in the world. She spent her days napping and her nights watching television. When she was diagnosed with pernicious anaemia, the visiting nurse who gave her B12 injections was concerned about this solitary woman, who seemed to take little interest in anything. But when the nurse asked about a bedside photograph of a girl and a dog, Anne brightened. That was a much, much younger self with her retriever, Lindy. Anne said she had always wanted another dog, but somehow things had just never worked out. This time, however, the nurse worked things out. She referred Anne to an animal shelter that had a program for matching the elderly with companion animals. Many local humane societies now provide this service. Anne soon had a new dog — Lindy II, naturally — and after only a few months, she almost seemed to be a new person as well. Lindy was an ideal "significant other." Unconditionally loyal and affectionate, he did wonders for Anne's morale. He gave her a sense of purpose and helped regulate her life, reminding her about meal-times and outings. When walking Lindy, Anne began meeting neighbours and making friends. Now that she was more active during the day, she slept soundly at night. It's not surprising that Anne's new clog had therapeutic value. (Fraser, 1989).

How can this help me?

If you or someone you know is finding it hard to cope with the changes in life associated with getting older, maybe think about getting a low maintenance pet or companion animal. They can help relieve feelings of loneliness and increase social activity and fitness!

Challenges and problems[edit | edit source]

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.

How can this help me?

Remember to consider your animal or visiting companion animal, don't forget regular food and water breaks as well as time-out breathers for mental rest!

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

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.

”Native peoples say that a long time ago on the earth a chasm opened up separating animals and humans. As the chasm got wider and wider, the dogs jumped across to be with the humans. Today, when you hear wolves howling in the night, they’re crying out for the chasm to close…” (Kling, 2006 as cited in Walsh, 2009)

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!!

How can this help me?

It means that no matter where you are from, you can experience the wonderful benefits of owning a pet!! Go get one right now!!

Cats are a common pet all over the world.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Are you a dog person?

1 Do you like the outdoors?

I love the outdoors!.
Only in summer.
I prefer indoors.

2 Do you have hayfever/allergies?

Yes, quite badly :(.
I'm allergic to animals.

3 Do you have a garden?


4 Are you active?

I exercise daily.
I'm more of a stay inside and watch a movie person.

If you scored high, a dog is perfect for you!

Are you a cat person?

1 Do you have a largely carpet house?


2 Do you want to play/wrestle with your pet?

Yes, i love a rough and tumble!
I have lots of small children?

3 Do you have other pets?

Yes, i have a cat and dog
I have birds and fish

4 Are you after a low maintenance pet?

Yes, I don't have time for walks.

If you scored low, maybe a cat isn't for you?

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!

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Allen, K. (2003). Are pets a healthy pleasure? The influence of pets on blood pressure. Current Direction in Psychological Science, 12(6), 236- 239. doi: 10.1046/j.0963-7214.2003.01269.x

Fraser, C. (1989) Patients advocate: sometimes the best therapy has four legs. Rn, 52 (6), 21-22.

Friesen, L. (2010). Exploring animal-assisted programs with children in school and therapeutic contexts. Early Childhood Education Journal, 37, 261-267. doi:10.1007/s10643-009-0349-5

Halm, M.A (2008). The healing power of the human-animal connection. American Journal of Critical Care, 17(4), 373- 376. Retrieved from:

Hatch, A. (2007). The view from all fours: A look at an animal-assisted activity program from the animals’ perspective. Anthrozoos, 20, 37-50. doi:10.2752/089279307780216632

Mano, S.Z., Mikulincer, M. & Shaver, P.R. (2011). Pet in the therapy room: An attachment perspective on animal-assisted therapy. Attachment & Human Development, 13(6), 541-561. doi: 10.1080/14616734.2011.608987

Miller, S.C., Kennedy, C., DeVoe, D., Hickey, M., Nelson, T., & Kogan, L. (2009). An examination of changes in oxytocin levels in men and women before and after interaction with a bonded dog. Anthrozoos, 22, 31-42. Retrieved from:

Netting, F.E., Wilson, C.C. & New, J.C. (1987). The human-animal bond: Implications for practice. Social Work, January-February, 60- 64. Retrieved from:

Prosser, L., Townsend, M., & Staiger, P. (2008). Older people’s relationships with companion animals: a pilot study. Nursing Older People, 20(3), 29- 32. Retrieved from:

Risley-Curtiss, C., Holley, L.C. & Wolf, S. (2006). The animal-human bond and ethnic diversity. Social Work, 51(3), 257-268. doi:10.1093/sw/51.3.257

Rooney, N.J., Morant, S., & Guest, C. (2013). Investigation into the value of trained glycaemia alert dogs to clients with type I diabetes. Plos One, 8(8), 1- 12.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069921

Serpell, J. (1999). Animals in children’s lives. Society and Animals, 7(2), 87- 94. Retrieved from:

Walsh, D. (2009). Human-animal bonds I: The relational significance of companion animals. Family Process, 48(4), 462-480. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2009.01296.x.


External links[edit | edit source]