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Therapeutic Aspects of the Human-Companion Animal Interaction

Therapeutic Aspects of the Human-Companion Animal Interaction


Although the majority of American households includes a pet, it is only recently that we have begun to explore the relationship between people and their pets and the possible physical and emotional benefits of that relationship. Early surveys reported a strong psychological and emotional attachment between people and their pets, and the term human-animal bond emerged to represent this attachment. Studies revealed that most pet owners view their pets as both enhancing the quality of family life by minimizing tension between family members and enhancing their owner's compassion for living things (Barker, 1993; Pet Theories, 1984; Voith, 1985). Using a projective technique to investigate owners' closeness to their pet dogs, Barker and Barker (1988, 1990) found that dog owners were as emotionally close to their dogs as to their closest family member. They reported that more than one-third of the dog owners in their study were actually closer to their dogs than to any human family member.

Benefits of Pet Ownership

With documentation of the strong human-companion animal bond came studies of how pet ownership may affect physical and mental health. Friedmann et al. (1980) conducted one of the first such studies, which compared the survival rates of pet owners and non-pet owners following a myocardial infarction (MI). Controlling for exercise, the investigators found a significantly higher survival rate, one year post-MI, for pet owners. Other studies supporting a cardiovascular benefit associated with pet ownership followed; they are summarized by Patronek and Glickman (1993). Perhaps the largest cardiovascular study of pet owners conducted to date involved over 5,700 participants taking part in a cardiovascular screening program in Australia (Anderson et al., 1992). The results showed that male pet owners had significantly lower systolic blood pressure, and triglyceride and cholesterol levels than males who did not own pets. The study also showed that, of females over the age of 40, those who owned pets had lower systolic blood pressure and triglyceride levels than those who did not.

Other researchers have examined the relationship between pet ownership and more general health factors. Serpell (1991) compared adults before and after they acquired a pet, and found a decrease in minor health problems for pet owners. Examining reported health and morale in older adults living in the community, Lago et al. (1989) found pet ownership and attitudes toward pets to be significant predictors of these variables. Siegel (1990) compared physician utilization of Medicare recipients experiencing stressful life events and found lower utilization among pet owners compared to those who did not own pets. Allen et al. (1991) reported that females had lowered stress levels when their dogs were present compared with the presence of a human best friend or control condition.

Professionals working with children have also written about the benefits of pet ownership. Erikson's (1963) stages of psychosocial development provide a useful framework for considering potential benefits. Pets may contribute to the development of 1) a child's basic sense of trust through the pet's constancy, security, reliability, love and affection, and ability to serve as a transitional object; 2) a sense of autonomy and initiative through the pet's serving as an active playmate and promoting exploration of the environment, and encouraging patience and self-control; 3) a sense of industry through the pet's trainability and response to the child's basic commands; and 4) a sense of identity through the pet's serving as a companion and confidant, and providing social and emotional support (Blue, 1986; Brown et al., 1996; Bryant, 1990; Robin and ten Bensel, 1990). Others have focused on specific qualities that may be enhanced in children growing up in pet-owning households. Some researchers have found that children with pets score higher on measures of empathy, self-esteem and self-concept than those who do not. (Poresky and Hendrix, 1990; Van Houtte and Jarvis, 1995).

Focusing on a clinical population, Barker et al. (1997) showed the strong supportive role of pets in the childhood of sexual abuse survivors. In this retrospective study, they found that, in some cases, the pet was the only reported supportive entity in the survivor's childhood. In sexual abuse survivors, Nebbe (1998) reports that survivors with a strong human-animal bond in childhood report less abusive behavior as adults, and lower anger levels than those lacking a strong bond.

Other researchers have investigated the effects of introducing previously unknown companion animals into health care settings. These activities have ranged from simple visitation by a pet and its owner, to the purposeful inclusion of animals in patient treatment. This animal-assisted therapy has been shown to facilitate the achievement of therapeutic goals.

Animal Visitation

Studies have found that simply having an animal present or visiting is beneficial to children and adults in some health care situations. Friedmann et al. (1983) observed reductions in children's blood pressure levels when a dog was present during a mildly stressful task. More recently, Wells (1998) found that the presence of a dog during potentially painful medical procedures reduced chronically ill children's physiological and psychological levels of distress. Similarly, Nagengast et al. (1993) found children's levels of distress during physical examinations were lower when a companion animal was present in the room.


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