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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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)
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.
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.