Research Mental Health and Wellness

Mental Health and Wellness

How The Human-Animal Bond Can Help

PTSD & Trauma

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by symptoms related to intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognition and mood, and alterations in arousal and reactivity. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD affects more than 250,000 (30 percent) of post 9-11 war veterans, with an alarming 22 suicides per day.[1][2]

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Animal-assisted therapy has also been widely studied for individuals who have experienced trauma, including physical abuse, sexual abuse and unspecified trauma.

  • Animals provide emotional security, psychophysiological and affect regulation, neurological and other behavioral responses of humans to our social environment[3]

Equine-facilitated psychotherapy has been found to:

  • Address self-esteem, depression and other emotional or psychological problems
  • The equine-human bonds described by participants in studies have parallels both with important elements of therapeutic alliances between professionals and clients and with the positive impact of relationship factors on client outcome[4]
  • Animals provide emotional security, psychophysiological and affect regulation, neurological and other behavioral responses of humans to our social environment[5]
  • Animal-Assisted Therapy has also been found to help at-risk youth overcome trauma and substance abuse.[6]
A man rides a Loving Thunder therapy horse
Service animals and therapy animals have been trained to support those with PTSD.Photo: Loving Thunder

In a study of 153 sexually abused children, ages 7-17, results indicated that:

  • Children in the groups that included therapy dogs showed significant decreases in trauma symptoms including anxiety, depression, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociation, and sexual concerns[7]

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Mental Health

A broad range of investigations have found that animal-human interactions reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness as they enhance social support and general well-being.

  • Interactions with pets alter the tendency of those with mental problems to focus negatively on themselves
  • Interactions with pets help those with mental issues become more involved in their environment in non-threatening ways[8]

Pets can also help people manage their long-term mental health conditions.

The Role of Pets in Management of Mental Health

The consisted presence and close physical proximity of their pets provided an immediate source of calm and therapeutic benefit for the pet owners.

A 2016 study explored the role of pets in the social networks of people managing a long-term mental health problem. The study found that pets contributed, over time, to individuals developing routines that provided emotional and social support.

  • Pets provide the ability to gain a sense of control inherent to caring for the pet
  • Pets provide a sense of security and routine developed in the relationship, which reinforced stable cognitions from the creation of certainty that they could turn to and rely on pets in time of need
  • Pets provide security through generating a sense of order and continuity to individual experiences and through providing a sense of meaning in an individual’s life
  • Pets provide a distraction and disruption from distressing symptoms, such as hearing voices, suicidal thoughts, rumination and facilitating routine and exercise for those who cared for them[9]

Social Support

Given the evidence that links social isolation as a risk factor for mental health and friendships, studies have focused on the impacts of companion animals as social facilitators or catalysts for friendship formation or social support networks.

In a study on the role of pets as facilitators of getting to know people, friendship formation and social support networks, pet-owners were found to be an important factor in developing healthy neighborhoods.

  • Pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than non-pet owners
  • Around 40% of pet owners reported receiving one or more types of social support (emotional, informational, instrumental) via people they met through their pet
  • For many pet owners, their pets also facilitated relationships from which they derived tangible forms of social support, both of a practical and emotionally supportive nature.[10]


Pet ownership has been found to be positively associated with forms of social contact and interaction, and with perceptions of neighborhood friendliness.

  • Pet owners have scored higher on social capital and civic engagement scales, suggesting that pet ownership provides potential opportunities for interactions between neighbors[11]


Reduction of stress-related parameters such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, improvement of immune system functioning, pain management, increased trustworthiness of and trust toward others, reduced aggression, enhanced empathy and improved learning have indicated the impact of HAI on stress.

To measure the impact of pets on stress levels, many studies incorporate a transient stressor, such as performing a challenging arithmetic problem.

One study examined the effect of pet ownership on cardiovascular responses to psychological stress (mental arithmetic task) among a group of hypertensive individuals in high-stress professions. The study found that:

  • Persons with low social support systems are likely to benefit in particular from the enhanced environment that pets provide
  • The presence of pets provided the kind of non-evaluative social support that is critical to buffering psychological responses to stress[12]

Another study measured the bio-behavioral stress response, measured by systolic and diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, salivary cortisol, SBP, DBP, HR and self-reported anxiety and stress for therapy-dog owners interacting with their own dog and dog owners interacting with an unfamiliar therapy dog.

The study results support a buffering effect on the stress response associated with owners interacting with their dogs that may extend to interactions with unfamiliar therapy dogs:

  • The therapy-dog owners perceived less stress and anxiety during the intervention
  • The unfamiliar therapy dog group experienced greater reductions in physiological measures
  • Positive attitudes toward pets were associated with decreased levels of self-reported stress, salivary cortisol, and SBP[13]


Many studies on the impact of pets and human-animal interaction on anxiety focus on hospital patients, who are prone to high levels of anxiety.

  • In a study of hospitalized patients with heart failure, patients that received a therapy dog visit for 12 minutes had significantly greater decreases in systolic pulmonary artery pressure during and after and in pulmonary capillary wedge pressure during and after the intervention.
  • Patients that received a dog therapy visit also had the greatest decrease from baseline in state anxiety sum score compared with the control groups.[14]

In 2016, HABRI announced two grant awards, one to the University of Tennessee School of Veterinary Medicine, and one to Duke University for two studies relating to the impact of AAI on the success of medical outcomes.


Depression and depressive disorders are a category of mood disorders that involve extended periods of feeling extremely low and disrupt a person’s ability to enjoy life. Scientific research on the impact of the human-animal bond and human-animal interaction focus on the impact of animals on the ability to improve mood.

In one study of residents in a long-term care facility, significant differences were found between pre and post BDI (Beck Depression Inventory) scores, indicating that animal-assisted activaties (AAA) visits can make a difference to the depression levels of residents in long-term care facilities[15]

A meta-analysis of studies on the effects of animal-assisted activities for depression highlighted these findings:

  • Crowley-Robinson et al. (1996) found a decrease in depression over the course of 2 years in elderly residents of a nursing home with a resident dog, but also in the home without a resident dog. 
  • In psychiatric inpatients, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) led to a significant increase in interactions with other patients over the course of 4 weeks in comparison to rehabilitation without animals. This included smiles, sociability, helpfulness toward others, activation and responsiveness (Marr et al., 2000).
  • In children and adults with physical or mental health problems animal contact can improve mood. 
  • Nathans-Barel et al. (2005) found that a 10-week AAT-program for patients with chronic schizophrenia improved the mood in comparison with a group without AAT. Children with psychiatric disorders showed better intra-emotional balance after only a single therapy session with a dog (Prothmann et al., 2006).
  • In hospitalized children, both, AAT and traditional play therapy improved mood, as reported by the parents and children themselves, but only AAT was associated with display of positive affect (Kaminski et al., 2002)[16]

Quality of Life

There is growing evidence that companion animals’ positive influence many important physiological, psychological and relational benefits, including quality of life and well-being.

  • For the elderly, companion animals enhance quality of life, bringing value, meaning and worth[3]
  • Pets promote relaxation, help seniors adhere to a daily schedule, and enhance their mobility and well-being[17]
  • Pet ownership is associated with improved quality of life through social support, reduced depression, and other psychosocial predictors of health.[18]
  • Pet owners have been found to report higher life satisfaction that non-owners.[19]

For more information about Mental Health Illness:

Workplace Wellness

As research expands our knowledge on the health benefits of pets, society is becoming more and more pet friendly. Doctors are prescribing pets for mental illness and wellness, teachers are incorporating pets in the classroom, and therapy animals are bringing comfort and joy to sick patients, young and old. Workplaces are also increasingly becoming “pet-friendly” by instituting policies that are sensitive to pet ownership.

Findings of a recent study that focused on these pet-friendly workplace policies found benefits of adoption measures can include improved employee productivity and retention.

  • The scope of pet-friendly policies and practices ranges from simple to more complex measures.
  • Adopting these measures can result in benefits that include enhanced attraction and recruitment, improved employee retention, enhanced employee health, increased employee productivity, and positive bottom-line results.
  • But there are also concerns regarding health and safety, property damage, distractions, and religious preferences.[20]

Research shows the positive role pets can play in the workplace, from increasing productivity to enhancing collaboration and improving workplace morale.

  • Pets in the workplace were most likely to be perceived to reduce stress, facilitate social interaction, to serve as an organizational symbol, and to serve as a self-expressive function.[21]
  • Pets provide stress-relieving support
  • Pets make the work environment more comfortable, provide a pleasant diversion from work, and provide companionship
  • Customers are more relaxed and interactive, as pets provide entertainment and diversion[22]

A 2012 study exploring the effects of the presence of dogs at work on stress and perceptions of job satisfaction and organizational support found that employees with dogs at work experienced a decline in stress, while those without their dog present or those who did not own a pet experienced an increase in stress levels.

  • Combined groups scored significantly higher on multiple job satisfaction subscales than the reference norm group for these scales.
  • Although perceived stress was similar at baseline; over the course of the day, stress declined for the DOG group with their dogs present and increased for the NODOG and NOPET groups.
  • The NODOG group had significantly higher stress than the DOG group by the end of the day.
  • A significant difference was found in the stress patterns for the DOG group on days their dogs were present and absent. On dog absent days, owners' stress increased throughout the day, mirroring the pattern of the NODOG group.[23]

Another recent study found that the presence of a friendly companion dog had positive impacts on people in groups working on a problem-solving task.

  • In study 1, groups worked on an interactive problem-solving task; participants in the dog-present group displayed more verbal cohesion, physical intimacy, and cooperation.
  • Study 2 was identical except that participants worked on a decision-making task requiring less interaction; participants in the dog-present condition displayed more verbal cohesion and physical intimacy and gave higher ratings of trustworthiness to fellow group members.
  • In study 3, we examined behavioral indicators of positive emotions in dog-present and dog-absent groups. Behavior in dog-present groups was rated as more cooperative, comfortable, friendly, active, enthusiastic, and attentive.[24]



Report on VA Facility Specific Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and Operation New Dawn (OND) Veterans Coded with Potential PTSD." Office of Public Health. 1 Dec. 2012. Web.


“Suicide Data Report” Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services, Suicide Prevention Program. 2012. Web.


Baun, M., R. Johnson, and B. McCabe. "Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice (Fine, AH Ed.)." (2006).


Yorke, Jan, Cindy Adams, and Nick Coady. "Therapeutic value of equine-human bonding in recovery from trauma." Anthrozoös 21.1 (2008): 17-30.


Baun, M., R. Johnson, and B. McCabe. "Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice (Fine, AH Ed.)." (2006).


Mims, Debra, and Rhondda Waddell. "Animal Assisted Therapy and Trauma Survivors." Journal of evidence-informed social work (2016): 1-6.


Dietz, Tracy J., Diana Davis, and Jacquelyn Pennings. "Evaluating animal-assisted therapy in group treatment for child sexual abuse." Journal of child sexual abuse 21.6 (2012): 665-683.


Walsh, Froma. "Human‐animal bonds I: The relational significance of companion animals." Family process 48.4 (2009): 462-480.


Brooks, Helen, et al. "Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: a study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition." BMC psychiatry 16.1 (2016): 409.


Wood L, Martin K, Christian H, Nathan A, Lauritsen C, Houghton S, et al. (2015) The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0122085. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.012208.


Wood, Lisa, Billie Giles-Corti, and Max Bulsara. "The pet connection: pets as a conduit for social capital?." Social science & medicine 61.6 (2005): 1159-1173.


Allen, Karen, Barbara E. Shykoff, and Joseph L. Izzo. "Pet ownership, but not ACE inhibitor therapy, blunts home blood pressure responses to mental stress." Hypertension 38.4 (2001): 815-820.


S. B. Barker, J. S. Knisely, N. L. McCain, C. M. Schubert, and A. K. Pandurangi, “Exploratory study of Stress-Buffering response patterns from interaction with a therapy dog,” Anthrozoos, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 79–91, 2010.


Kathie M. Cole, Anna Gawlinski, Neil Steers, and Jenny Kotlerman. “Animal-Assisted Therapy in Patients Hospitalized With Heart Failure”. Am J Crit Care November 2007 16:575-585.


Le Roux, M. C., & Kemp, R. (2009). Effect of a companion dog on depression and anxiety levels of elderly residents in a long-term care facility. Psychogeriatrics, 9(1), 23-26.


M. A. Souter and M. D. Miller, “Do animal-assisted activities effectively treat depression? a meta-analysis,” Anthrozoos, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 167–180, 2007.


Colombo, Giovanni, et al. "Pet therapy and institutionalized elderly: a study on 144 cognitively unimpaired subjects." Archives of gerontology and geriatrics 42.2 (2006): 207-216.


Schreiner, Pamela J. "Emerging Cardiovascular Risk Research: Impact of Pets on Cardiovascular Risk Prevention." Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports 10.2 (2016): 1-8.


Bao, Katherine Jacobs, and George Schreer. "Pets and Happiness: Examining the Association between Pet Ownership and Wellbeing." Anthrozoös 29.2 (2016): 283-296.


Wilkin, Christa L., Paul Fairlie, and Souha R. Ezzedeen. "Who let the dogs in? A look at pet-friendly workplaces." International Journal of Workplace Health Management 9.1 (2016): 96-109.


Wells, Meredith, and Rose Perrine. "Critters in the cube farm: perceived psychological and organizational effects of pets in the workplace." Journal of occupational health psychology 6.1 (2001): 81.


Barker, Randolph T. "On the edge or not? Opportunities for interdisciplinary scholars in business communication to focus on the individual and organizational benefits of companion animals in the workplace." The Journal of Business Communication (1973) 42.3 (2005): 299-315.


Barker, Randolph T., et al. "Preliminary investigation of employee's dog presence on stress and organizational perceptions." International Journal of Workplace Health Management 5.1 (2012): 15-30.


Colarelli, Stephen M., et al. "A Companion Dog Increases Prosocial Behavior in Work Groups." Anthrozoös 30.1 (2017): 77-89.