The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviours that are essential to the health and well-being of both. It is commonly assumed that pets play a significant role in people's lives. For countless centuries, animals have lived beside man. Recently, there has been increasing interest in further understanding the importance of the human-animal bond among researchers, and what are the potential benefits to creating and sustaining these bonds. Pets provide their owners with many direct benefits, but there is also evidence that pets can have many positive psychological implications (Shoda, et al. 2011). The most commonly owned pet in society today is the domestic dog, followed by the cat and third being birds (Wells, 2007; Beals, 2009). Pet animals provide both love and freedom, are sensitive to human emotional states, and can engage in nonverbal emotional communication, a major component of empathy (Beals, 2009). As researchers gain a better understanding of the link between people and pets, more and more pets are being used in therapy and as assistance dog's with more beneficial and positive results being seen. Pets have been shown to create many social benefits in people of all ages and types, ranging from children to the elderly, people with disabilities and handicaps (Shoda et al. 2011; Beals, 2009).
What is an emotion?
Defining emotion can be difficult due to its many components. Emotion is often defined as a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behaviour. Emotion includes a wide range of observable behaviours, expressed feelings, and changes in the body state. Reeve (2009, p. 301) defines emotion as short-lived, feeling-arousal-purposive-expressive phenomena that help us to adapt to the opportunities and challenges we face during important life events. Emotion is that which choreographs these components into a coherent reaction to an eliciting event.
There are really three definitions of various aspects of emotions that can be distinguished:
- Emotion is a feeling that is private and subjective. Humans can feel and express a range of states.
- Emotion is a state of psychological arousal in expression or display of distinctive somatic (voluntary) and autonomic (involuntary) responses. This definition suggests that emotional states can be defined by particular constellations of bodily responses.
- Emotions are actions that are commonly deemed.
Four components of emotion
Emotions are multidimensional. There are four main dimensions to emotion as shown in figure 1. Each of these dimensions emphasises a different aspect of emotion. Figure 1 shows four boxes, each box corresponds to a separate aspect of emotion.
- Feeling component gives emotion its subjective experience that has both meaning and personal significance. Feeling aspect is the source in cognitive mental processes.
- Bodily arousal component includes our neural and physiological (biological) activation.
- Sense of purpose component gives emotion its goal-directed character to take the action necessary to cope with the circumstances in hand
- Social expressive component is emotion's communicative aspect. Through postures, gestures, vocalisations and facial expressions, our private experiences become public expressions.
What causes an emotion
The process involved in causing an emotion
Emotions consist of a subjective experience, a physiological reaction, an expressive component, and a behavioural response (Beals, 2009). Whilst many view points are considered when thinking about what causes an emotion, there is one central debate that understanding emotion comes back to: that is biology versus cognition. This debate focuses on the idea of whether emotions are primarily biological or cognitive based.
- Biological Perspective: This perspective states that biology lies at the causal core of emotion; therefore emotion is a bi-product of biology and evolution. This perspective downplays secondary or acquired emotions. Paul Ekman's, one of the three representatives of the biological perspective, most influential work revolved around the finding that certain emotions appeared to be universally recognised. It was Robert Plutchik who developed the 'wheel of emotions', suggesting eight primary emotions group on a positive or negative basis.
- Cognitive perspective: The cognitive perspective revolves around the idea that cognitive activity is a necessary prerequisite to emotion. It acknowledges the importance of the primary emotions but stresses the complex (secondary, acquired) emotions. It also suggests that there are many, varied emotions which arise in response to different meaning structures
The question of how many emotions there are depends on whether a biological or cognitive orientation is taken, as a biological perspective emphasises the primary emotions, and a cognitive perspective acknowledges the primary emotions, but it stresses more importance on secondary (acquired) emotions. Basic emotions are justified as so when they meet the following criteria, which were created by Ekman and Davidson (1994). These are when they:
Plutchik's wheel of emotion.
- Are innate rather than acquired or learned through experience or socialisation
- Arise from the same circumstances for all people
- Are expressed uniquely and distinctively
- Evoke a distinctive and highly predictable physiological patterned response.
As such, the six basic emotions are fear, anger, disgust, sadness, joy and interest. These can be categorised into either a negative emotion theme, or a positive emotion theme. The negative basic emotions are fear, anger, disgust and sadness. Therefore the positive basic emotions are joy and interest.
When a beneficial event related to our needs and well-being is anticipated, we feel interest. If and when the event materialises into satisfaction, we feel joy (or enjoyment). Interest prolongs our task engagement so we can put ourselves in a position to experience motive satisfaction. Together, interest and joy provide the emotional support to be fully and voluntarily involved in an activity (Reeve, 1989). By implementing this idea into our interactions with pets and animals, we can gain insight into some of the positive benefits of human-pet interaction.
Understanding the ways in which pets may impact human psychological well-being and identifying which humans are most likely to benefit, are among the primary goals in research on the human-companion animal bond (Beals, 2009). Many researchers have already found many benefits of these relationships. Katcher (1983) identified four elements of the human-animal bond: safety, intimacy, kinship and constancy. One reason why people might benefit from owning pets is their pets might represent an important source of social support (Garrity & Stallones, 1998; Beals, 2009). Numerous studies demonstrate that possessing greater social support improves psychological and physiological health (eg. Harter, 2003; Garrity & Stallones, 1998). Some benefits that pet owners often experience include things such as decreased loneliness by providing companionship, and a decrease in fear and anxiety as a result of owning a pet. As Friedmann and Son (2009) found, adults who live alone and own a dog report feeling an increased sense of security. Pets also have the ability to quickly improve their owner's mood. Interacting with pets can cause euphoric feelings and eliminate feelings of anger, sadness, irritability and depression. Often ownership helps to encourage social interaction. People with pets are more likely to forge relationships with other pet owners. It provides the owners with a common interest to talk about, or gives them the confidence to engage in conversation. Also these factors in turn help to boost an individual's emotional well-being.
If pets are psychologically close to their owner, they may provide well-being benefits for their owner just like any other person (Beales, 2009).
Affect of pets on children
The role of pets in children lives has been found to be very beneficial and also important in a healthy development. For younger children, involvement, positive reinforcement and acceptance are important for building self-esteem. Accomplishing tasks appropriate to their age, such as taking care of a pet, make a child feel more competent (Endenburg & Baarda, 1995). VanLeeuwin (1981) promotes the notion that children who never have the opportunity to become involved with an animal are, "deprived of an opportunity that usually gives depth to a wide range of emotional experience" (p. 175). Pets have also been cited as providing important social support for children. Bachman (1975) found that children regularly nominated pets when asked who they would go to with a problem. MacDonald (1981) surveyed 10 year old children. In the study a majority of the children said they talked to their dog and believed that their dog could understand their speech, respond to their mood and understand their feelings. A pet is seen as non-judgemental, and hence children may feel more confident when sharing feelings with a pet, such as dog, that they normally may be ashamed of in the presence of a person.
In a study done by Friedman et al. (1983), it was found that the presence of one friendly, unfamiliar dog resulted in significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate among children. A similar study by Nagengast et al. (1997) found similar results with the presence of a dog during a physical examination. These results indicate that the presence of a dog can help to reduce anxiety and stress levels in children during events that would normally be distressing. Drawing on attachment theory, Trieibenbacher (1998) surmises that human-pet attachments bear a good deal of similarity to human-human attachments.
Affect of pets on adults and the elderly
As people age, the circumstances in their lives also change. As sources of social support, pets may act as buffers against stress inducing events and contribute to reductions in loneliness, anxiety and depression, as well as increases in self-esteem (Beals, 2009). Generally at one point in their life, people find themselves living alone. During this time, however, people report more often that they experience feelings of loneliness. Authors have found that pet ownership makes a difference for those living alone (Goldmeier, 1986). Pet owners who live alone report greater attachment to that pet, but this in turn is associated with less reported illness, decreased loneliness and anxiety, in comparison to people living alone with no pets who report higher levels of illness, loneliness, stress and anxiety levels. Shoda et al.'s (2011) study found that adult pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, and tended to be less lonely, more conscientious, more extraverted and less fearful.
Having a close relationship with pets early in life would predict a close relationship later in life and likelihood of benefiting from animal companionship. The need for social contact and support is often not met for older individuals. Often due to the death of a spouse, loss of relatives, friends and work associates. When there is that loss of human contact and social interaction, this is when depression levels can rise. The presence of a dog can also help by facilitating interaction between people rather than being the main focus of interaction itself. Particularly in a nursing home environment, or one in which the pet and owner go out for walks (Hart, 1995).
Affect of pets on depression
Loneliness is a problem faced by many individuals, and it is especially common among senior citizens, and elderly individuals. Loneliness can result in negative emotional health and feelings of depression, sadness and fear. Depression is suggested to have resulted from thoughts involving unfulfilled expectations, loss and failure, whereas anxiety results from thoughts that anticipate danger or unpleasantness. Sadness occurs when there is a failure of a major plan or loss of an active goal (Martin, 1990). Negative mood inductions tend to produce larger effect sizes than positive mood inductions (Westermann et al. 1996). Depressed mood has been associated with learned helplessness and self-perceptions of defeat and/or entrapment (Beals, 2009).
There are circumstances that promote well-being or alleviate distress. One such circumstance is pet ownership, as pets have reported to provide companionship, an aid to health and relaxation (Soares, 1985). In part of the study by Shoda et al. (2011), they found that pets providing greater social needs fulfilment were related to better owner well-being (eg. Less depression, less loneliness, greater self-esteem and greater happiness). For these individuals, who would have otherwise spent their days alone, a pet can become a lifelong companion.
Affect of pets on stress
Everyone feels stressed from to time, and most of us feel lonely on occasion too. Keil (1998) found that as subjects experienced increases in stress, many grew increasingly attached to their pets. When discussing stress, a couple of theories can help us to understand the types that may be involved. The role strain theory posits that it is the discomfort experienced when individuals have difficulty fulfilling multiple and often conflicting role obligations, therefore, multiple roles lead to lower well-being (Marie & Cline, 2010). Conversely, role enhancement theory suggests that multiple roles can provide buffers that can reduce the likelihood of strain (Marie & Cline, 2010). A person who holds many roles may compensate for a failure in a relationship by relying more heavily on other relationships. Too few roles as well as too many roles can both be detrimental to well-being. Owning a dog may enhance well-being by providing buffers that have the potential to reduce the likelihood of strain by decreasing the negative effects of occupying too few roles.
Garrity et al. (1989) data suggested that pet ownership or attachment or both might play a beneficial role in times of stress. Data on human social relationships indicate that these relationships can buffer the impact of a variety of stresses and strains (Siegel, 1990). Patients in pet therapy may experience reduced cardiovascular reactions to stress. This is attributed to a process called 'contact comfort'. In this process, the unconditional human-animal bond that forms through touch is thought to induce relaxation (Halm, 2008)
Social support is important for well-being. The most powerful form of social support is whether a person has an intimate, confiding relationship (Thoits, 1995). As data from Siegel's (1990) study found that dogs provided a stress buffer where other pets didn't, they would be able to provide companionship, unconditional love, affection, happiness and security, and help to act as social facilitators.
Siegel's (1990) study examined the direct and indirect effects of pet ownership on utilisation behaviour of the elderly. Respondents of the study indicated that their pet provided them with companionship or company, feelings of security and feeling loved, further supporting the notion of using pets as stress buffers. The stress reducing value of the human-animal bond may be based on the non-judgemental stance of dogs (Beals, 2009).
||There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face ~ Ben Williams
Cocoa is a nine year old female Corgi, who volunteers with the Loudoun Volunteer Caregivers Pet Therapy Program. She visits residents in a number of different environments. One story of a particular encounter was with an elderly lady, Mrs Sliger, who lived at an assisted living facility. She was a reclusive woman, preferring to remain in her room, even for meals. The nurses believed that she would enjoy a visit from Cocoa. So after the group session, Cocoa stopped in at the Mrs Sliger's room, who would pet her, smile and interact with Cocoa's owner. As the weeks passed, Mrs Sliger became aware of Cocoa's visitation schedule and began to wait at the door of her room. Eventually she then waited outside the community room where the group met, until the group session was over. Until one day, she came in the room and joined the group. From then on always joined the group and gradually became more open and talkative with the other people at the facility (Sorrell, 2006).
There are many different ways, and in many different settings that pets can be used as therapy. They can be used in assisted living facilities, mental health homes, hospital departments, disability services and with frail older adults. Previous research on pet therapy with both children and adults has tended to emphasise the calming effects that companion animals, particularly dogs have on autonomic activity (Somervill et al. 2009). Cocoa's story is one example in which a dog can draw out someone for greater social interaction, which in turn would have positive effects on their emotional well-being.
Animal assisted therapy
Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is a diverse therapeutic approach that is used with people of all ages. AAT involves interactions between a client, an animal and a therapist, with the aim of improving therapeutic outcomes (Zilcha-Mano et al. 2011). For centuries animals have been used in a therapeutic setting, but recently that have been receiving more and more attention. Early writers in the field already proposed that humans have an innate need to affiliate with animals (Beals, 2009).
The benefits of the human-animal interaction can be measured at physiological and psychological levels. Studies of the effect of AAT on patients in medical setting show reduced heart rates, respiration rates, and blood pressure (Engelman, 2013). These are all indicative of a relaxation response. Utilising AAT in the palliative care setting holds great promise in reducing patients' pain, suffering and increasing their quality of life. In Chitic et al.'s study (2012), they found that there was a large effect of the Animal Assisted Therapy interventions on the communication and social skills of the patients sampled.
Some of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy include:
- Increased focus and attention
- Increases self-esteem and ability to care for oneself
- Reduced anxiety, grief and isolation
- Reduced blood pressure, depression and risk of heart attack or stroke
- Improved willingness to be involved in a therapeutic program or group activity
- Increased trust, empathy and teamwork
- Great self-control
- Improved social skills
Some conditions/disorders that animal assisted therapy treats:
- Autisum spectrum disorders
- Heart disease
- Development disorders
- Psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia
- Emotional and behaviour disorders
- Chronic pain.
For children, play is one way in which they deal with the normative (eg. Developmental stage) and non-normative (eg. Hospitalisation) conflicts in their life. Play can provide several methods of coping for the hospitalised child. Play may act as a diversion, refocusing attention away from the stressors. As in Kaminski and Pellino's study (2002) children in the pet-therapy group seemed to experience anticipatory excitement about seeing the therapy dogs. There was decreased talk about being ill and wanting to go home from the hospital. By using the pets as distraction, the thoughts of illness and home sickness became less prominent in the children's mind. Touch has been described as a major component of the effectiveness of pet therapy, leading to a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate (Vormbrock & Grossberg, 1988).
The three main types of animals that are used in pet therapy include dogs, cats and horses. Each is known for their positive benefits depending on the condition or disorder of the patient. They provide patients, who may normally be quite closed off, to have an opportunity to open up and express their feelings in a non-judgemental way. Thereby reducing the social isolation a person may feel. However the pets in therapy are also useful in improving the mood of patients by providing a light-hearted source of play.
Since the 1990's, there has been an increase in the use of assistance dogs which are trained and placed for the purpose of reducing the impact of disabling conditions on the day to day lives of individuals across a variety of situations. The three general types of dogs include guide dogs (assist the blind and visually impaired), hearing dogs (help the deaf and hard of hearing) and service dogs (range of work including mobility assistance, medical alert). There is a growing body of research showing that contact with animals and pet ownership (companion animals) can be beneficial to humans (Jennings, 1997). So whilst these assistance dogs are helping their owner's lives with their conditions, they also provide a much deeper psychological effect too.
Fairman and Huebner's (2001) participants reported that they were more in control of their lives, more independent, felt better about themselves, participated in more activities, were better able to manage stress and have increased confidence with their assistance dog. In another study with service dogs or hearing dogs, participants reported experiencing higher self-esteem, more confidence, more assertiveness, more contentment, having better control of anxiety, feeling less lonely, feeling less depressed and feeling less irritable (Valentine et al. 1993). Participants emphasised the dog's affection and the bond between them and the dog, and many said they no longer felt lonely. Preliminary support in Kaminski and Pellino (2002) research concluded that assistance dog's have a positive impact on individual's health, psychological well-being, social interactions, performance on activities, and participation in various life roes at home and in the community.
Attachment perspective on human-pet relationships
Many researchers believe that the attachment theory may play a role in the way we interact with our pets. John Bowlby, the psychologist who created the attachment theory, defines attachment as a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings" (1969, p.194). One of the assumptions of the attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969), is that social interactions with significant others (called attachment figures in the theory) are internalised in the form of conscious and unconscious mental representations of self and relationship paterners(internal working models of self and others) (Zilcha-Mano et al. 2011). Zilcha-Mano et al argue that the attachment theory also provides a useful framework for understanding the human-pet bond. There are four main prerequisites for an attachment bond, all which pets meet. These are proximity seeking, safe haven, secure base and separation distress. Hence they can be viewed as attachment figures.
There are many studies that confirm that pet owners feel emotionally close to their pets and seek and enjoy their closeness, and also constitute a source of support, comfort and relief in times of need (eg. Barker & Barker, 1988; Kidd & Kidd, 1995).
||Loving an animal can be easier than loving a person, and unlike a person, the love the pet has for its companion is generally without condition or judgement (Cusack, 1988. P.9
Positive experiences with a pet could help to pave the way to creating more secure interpersonal attachments and re-evaluate and modify maladaptive working models and attachment orientations.
The importance and influence of the human-animal bonding is receiving more interest in the past number of years. The benefits of owning a pet have been shown to significantly increase a person's overall well-being in a positive way. This includes not only our physical self but also our psychological self. Pets help to reduce stress, reduce loneliness, increase companionship, help in facilitating communication and many more things. Animals are able to fill our emotional needs in ways that others may be unable to. Pets are not only great in the everyday household, but are also very beneficial in hospital, assisted living facilities and disability services, to name a few. Whether young or old, research has shown that pets play an important role in a person's life.
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