Abstract — Many studies have been done over the years on what effects a relationship with an animal has on our health. Besides the obvious physical benefits one gets from walking the dog there are many different aspects that have proven to be beneficial physiologically and psychologically. Interacting with dogs, cats, horses and birds and many other types of animals is rewarding as well as being very good for our health. Animals are being used in therapy for stroke victims, assault victims post traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. There are many different types of ailments that a relationship with an animal can help improve which leads to the statement that yes, our pets are good for our health.
ARE PETS GOOD FOR OUR HEALTH?
Some people say pets are our best friends, noble companions, protection for the home and loving family member. There are also people in our society who do not understand the relationship between human and the domesticated animal, people who are offended by smelly dogs, animal hair on their clothing or they just do not relate to animals at all. Admittedly owning a pet is a responsibility that can be expensive, time consuming and heartbreaking, but ask anyone with an animal companion and they will probably say it is all worth it. But are pets good for our health? According to some experts there are negative concerns regarding pet ownership such as disease, allergies, worms, skin mites, salmonella and cat-scratch fever, as well as the possibility of falling over the dog and breaking a limb(Herzog,2011). There are claims that there is not enough consistent evidence to support the statement that pets are good for our health. This research paper is presenting the positive aspects of pet ownership, demonstrating that our animal companions are good for our health and that a relationship with a pet provides positive physiological and psychological benefits. A relationship with an animal companion is good for our health and sense of well-being.
In Germany during World War 1, Dr. Gerhard Stalling was visiting a veteran’s hospital and while doing rounds he left his German shephard dog with one of the patients who had been blinded. When Dr. Stalling returned to the patient, he discovered the dog was guiding the patient around the room successfully. It was this observation which eventually led to Dr. Stalling becoming interested in training dogs to serve as guides to the blind. He opened his first guide dog school in 1916 and we are still using guide dogs today (Ostermeier, 2010). A trained dog to aid the blind is what is traditionally considered as a service animal and dogs are still the most common animal to be used in many different types of therapies. In fact, service dogs with their owner have been used to assist in the speech therapy for people with aphasia, (speech difficulties) from a stroke. The results were significant, after twelve weeks in therapy while a service dog attended there were improvements in therapy results and a greater motivation on the patient’s part to practice and work at their therapy (Marcus, Bernstein, Constantin, Kunkel, Breur, Hanlon, 2012). Along these same lines service dogs and their owner/handler have been used in outpatient pain management clinics with patients waiting for their appointment time. Results have shown that there are significant reductions in pain and distress (Marcus et al., 2012). Another interesting observation about this type of therapy is the dog owner and the clinic’s staff had positive outcomes. As well, they were able to be a part of a team that helped improve the quality of life for a person who was unable to help themselves.
Research has provided strong evidence that a person’s quality of life can be improved positively by owning a pet. There are positive physiological results, such as improved cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and serum triglycerides. Patients recovering from a heart attack who own a pet had a significantly higher one year survival than those without pets. For example, stroking a dog greatly reduces blood pressure in both the person and the animal. Interacting with companion animals creates an increase in neurochemicals associated with bonding and relaxation and the human immune system was found to function better. In fact it was found that the presence of a pet had more positive effects on cardiovascular health with the lowering of stress than a spouse or a friend (Walsh, 2009). Many doctor, dentist or laboratory waiting rooms have aquariums as they have been proven to relax and lower stress levels for patients.
We now recognize how stress reducing and relaxing owning a pet can be, but the history of humans recognizing the health benefits of animals goes back even further. The ancient Greeks and Romans after a battle would put their injured soldiers back onto their horses as they knew that the motion of the horse aided the healing process (Benda, McGibbons, Grant, 2003). Equine-Assisted Therapy involves using horse back riding for physical activity which provides positive and beneficial results for people suffering from cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, sensory impairments and developmental delay. The stretching of the riders body, the forward-sitting posture and the rhythmic, constantly changing movement of the horse all contribute to positive physical improvements for the rider while on the horse as well as off the horse. These examples provide evidence that interaction with an animal does provide positive physical improvements for a person undergoing physical therapy. However there are some disadvantages involved with animal assisted therapy such as affordability. Not all people who could benefit from this type of therapy can afford it although strides have been made through many organizations to make available this therapy to as many people as possible.
Child psychologist Boris Levinson is credited for being one of the first to provide therapy using animals. In the 1960’s Levinson conducted a study of elderly people in long-term care who were suffering from dementia using dogs as co-therapists. The overall conclusion was that the patients who had interaction with visiting dogs and their owner/handlers had a 50% decrease in their depression. The patient’s perceptions of their quality of life was greatly improved and their perceptions of self were improved as well. Patients who did not visit with the dogs did not show such a reduction in their depression. By the 1970’s, the therapeutic use of pets was no longer thought of being experimental and there are now specific operational protocols being used in therapy (Moretti, DeRonchi, Bernabel, Marchetti, Ferrari, Forlani, Negretti, Sacchetti, Atti, 2010). Dr. Aaron Beck found that one of the advantages to using Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) with assault victims who were non communicative, withdrawn and uncooperative was that there were immediate results. The patient responded quickly to the animal in the room. Further results were that besides the patient, the staff benefited as well, they treated the patient with more compassion and with a much more positive outlook regarding treatment (Sockalingam, Sanjeev, Li, Hanson, Balaban, Pacione, Bhalerao, 2008). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition suffered by people who have experienced trauma in some way such as assault, military personnel returning from war, car accidents and many more instances of physical and mental ordeals. In an article written for the CAM Commons Newsletter (Complimentary and Alternative Medicine) Derek Bryan wrote about the successful use of animals in the treatment for PTSD. One of the most interesting facts he presented was the use of parrots, as well as cats and dogs, in the therapy sessions for military personnel. It has been found that PTSD is suffered by parrots from the traumatic experience of being smuggled into the country. There are many parrots in rescue facilities who are being partnered with PTSD patients with successful results. The parrot’s empathetic nature allows it to be able to sense when their human companion’s stress level is elevating. The parrot’s high intelligence and ability to mimic sounds can provide humour and relief at opportune times. An example has been given of a man with PTSD repeating to himself “calm down” (DeVivo, 2013) and his parrot quickly learning to say calm down. The parrot was eventually telling his owner to calm down every time he sensed a dramatic mood swing. This is an incredible partnership of humans in desperate need and animals, or in this case birds, in desperate need for understanding, companionship and rescue. As both parrot and human share the same levels of anxiety a common bond is established while trust is being built.
Trust is difficult for people suffering from PTSD. They have described themselves as being emotionally numb or feeling as if they weren’t in their own body and that they lack awareness of body language. Working with horses has been especially successful as horses communicate primarily through body language. While establishing a relationship with the horse the rider must become aware of his own body language and his expression of emotions experiencing awareness of not only of themselves but of another. Horses being herd animals, are always aware of the movements and intentions of those around them and there is always a herd leader. If the human does not take on the leadership role the horse will, so learning to be assertive rather than aggressive is a key element for the rider to work on. As people with PTSD have difficulties controlling anger and their aggressiveness these exercises with a horse is extremely valuable. The rider learns trust while establishing trust with the horse and they learn confidence to gain respect. The herd leader is now the rider (MacLean,2011). A study of inpatients with schizophrenic disorders was done during ten weeks of horseback riding lessons. All of the subjects participating in the study enjoyed the experience of interacting with the horse which was profound as most people with this type of disorder suffer from anhedonia which is the inability to experience pleasure from activities normally found enjoyable by others. There was also a notable increase in the rider’s self confidence. (Corring, Lundberg, Rudnick, 2013). Just consider being in control of an animal that could weigh well over a thousand pounds and that the control depends on your confidence, stability and partnership skills. The sense of accomplishment and success can be incredible. Horseback riding is more than just a method of therapy, it is exciting and a great deal of fun.
Not everyone has the opportunity to improve self-esteem while having fun. Our society, unfortunately, has a large population of people who are homeless. While there has been a great deal of research done on the effects our pets have in therapeutic settings, these settings are mostly traditional. Someone owns a dog, cat, horse or bird and has the desire to share this pet with someone who would benefit from animal therapy. But there is another non-traditional situation where pets have proven to be good for their owner’s health. A study was done in 2013 looking at the effects of animal companions among Canadian street youth which concluded with results that had not been considered in the past. Besides the obvious drawbacks to having an animal companion such as unable to find shelter that will accept pets, it was found that there was a decrease in drug use and arrests. The youth would spend whatever money that was available on the care of their pet instead of drugs and that this responsibility led them to leading healthier lifestyles. Animal companions provided emotional support and in some cases protection as well as a sense of family (Lem, Coe, Haley, 2013). Once the negative aspects of having an animal companion while living on the street is weighed against the results of more responsibility, less if not no drug use, it becomes quite clear that having an animal companion for street youth is a positive asset.
Animals companions have been and are a positive and beneficial asset in therapeutic treatment and recovery for many ailments whether they be physical or psychological. What is very important to keep in mind is the fact that these animals are all someone’s pet. Yes, there are drawbacks to owning a pet such as the expense, the mess, the chance of injury, becoming infected with a disease or even being attacked by the animal. These are risks that millions of people take on when the adopt a pet whether it be a dog, cat, horse, rabbit or a parrot and the relationship between animal and person is a rewarding and in many cases therapeutic relationship. Also, we need to keep in mind the generosity of people who share their pets with people in need of physical and/or psychological help. Most if not all animals used in therapy have owners who have taken on the expense of training and driving their pets to the location used for therapy. The pet owner benefits twofold, they witness the positive results their animal brings to a person in need and is rewarded with a sense of accomplishment and sense of well-being. Finally the therapies discussed have all been measured using scientific values which have been peer reviewed and have been widely accepted as successful and positive methods for recovery and treatment leading to the conclusion that yes pets are good for our health.
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