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May 2019: Pet Therapy

Introduction

There are a number of animal-assisted activities that involve animals helping humans, including programs designed to improve a person’s emotional or physical health and wellbeing through pet therapy.  Pet therapy is a broad term that can include programs and activities that are not necessarily psychological interventions or overseen by a professional, ranging from companion birds and cats in residential aged care to highly trained therapy dogs providing support to adults and children in hospitals, schools and courts.

While many pet therapy programs have not been the subject of rigorous scientific evaluation, in recent years a robust and reliable evidence base for their effectiveness has been building.  Findings from a comprehensive review of more than 66,000 articles, for example, suggest that animal assisted therapy may be of benefit to a wide range of individuals, including children with autism, and adults with psychological disorders, including schizophrenia (Maujean et. al. 2015).

There is also evidence to suggest that the human-animal bond positively impacts on both people and animals, and these studies can be used to inform debate about the ethics of using animals in human treatment programs.  Therapy dogs have been found to reduce stress physiologically (cortisol levels) and increase attachment responses that trigger oxytocin – a hormone that increases trust in humans.  Similarly, in response to the human-animal bond, dogs produce oxytocin and decrease their cortisol levels when connecting with their owner.  Dogs have been found to respond in the same way when engaging in animal-assisted activities, depending on the environmental context (Glenck, 2017; Kertes, 2017).

Relationships Australia explored the views of visitors to our website on animal assisted, or pet, therapy by asking them a few questions in the May 2019 monthly online survey.

Previous research finds that…

Animal assisted therapy can (Anderson et. al. 1992; Becker, 2017; Chandler, 2017; Lloyd & Reesa, 2014; Maujean et. al. 2015; Turner, 2011):

  • teach empathy and appropriate interpersonal skills;
  • help reduce symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety in response to traumatic events;
  • be soothing and the presence of animals can more quickly build rapport between the professional and client;
  • improve individual’s skills to pick up social cues imperative to human relationships;
  • decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, including by increasing exercise and decreasing blood pressure; and
  • improve school and university engagement, confidence, self-esteem and interpersonal relationship skills for students.

Results

More than 1,300 people responded to the Relationships Australia online survey in May 2019.  Three‑quarters of survey respondents (78%) identified as female, with more females than males responding in every age group (see figure 1 below).  Just under eighty per cent of survey respondents were aged between 20‑59 years, and more than 50 per cent of respondents comprised women aged between 20‑49 years (inclusive).

As for previous surveys, the demographic profile of survey respondents remains consistent with our experience of the groups of people that commonly access the Relationships Australia website, noting a slight decrease in the proportion of mid-aged women responding when compared to previous surveys.

 

Almost all female survey respondents and more than 90 per cent of male survey respondents reported that they have kept animals as pets.  Almost 95 per cent of survey respondents reported that they enjoy spending time with animals.

Survey respondents were most likely to report that the most rewarding aspect of owning a pet was ‘it brings joy’, ‘improved mental wellbeing’ and it ‘reduces loneliness and/or social isolation’ (Table 1).  Very few survey respondents reported that social engagement or physical wellbeing was the most beneficial reason for owning a pet.


Table 1. Reasons for owning a pet by gender, per cent

Female

Male

It brings joy

51.5

44.6

Promotes an ethic of care and responsibility

7.8

14.6

Improves mental wellbeing

19.9

16.4

Improves physical wellbeing

1.0

1.7

Enhances social engagement

0.5

2.1

Reduces loneliness and/or social isolation

16.8

16.0

Other

2.5

4.5

Total

100.0

100.0

 

Women (95%) were more likely than men (86%) to report that they considered spending time with animals was useful as therapy.  Similarly, there were differences in the reports of men and women when asked whether they would like to see therapy animals in places where people access support services.  Women (93%) were more likely than men (79%) to report that they would like to see therapy animals in places where people access health, legal and community services.

Survey respondents were also asked if they considered it fair for an animal to be used as part of a person's mental or physical health treatment or support.  The same proportion of men (79%) who reported that they would like to see therapy animals in places where people access health, legal and community services reported that they considered it fair for an animal to be used as part of a person’s mental or physical health treatment or support.  However, while 93% of women reported that they would like to see therapy animals in places where people access support, a smaller proportion (81%) considered it fair for an animal to be used as part of a person’s treatment or support.

References

Anderson, W. P., Reid, C. M., Jennings, G. L. (1992). Pet ownership and risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Medical Journal of Australia. 157(5):298–301.

Becker, J. L., Rogers, E. C. & Burrows, B. (2017). Animal-assisted Social Skills Training for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Anthrozoös, 30:2, 307-326, DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2017.1311055.

Chandler, C. K. (2017). Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling, Routledge; 3rd edition.

Maujean, A., Pepping, C. A. & Kendall, E. (2015). A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Psychosocial Outcomes, Anthrozoös, 28:1, 23-36, DOI: 10.2752/089279315X14129350721812.

Glenk, L. M. (2017). Current Perspectives on Therapy Dog Welfare in Animal-Assisted Interventions. Animals (Basel). Feb; 7(2),

Published online 2017 Feb 1. DOI: 10.3390/ani7020007.

Kertes, D. A., Liu, J., Hall, N. J., Hadad, N. A., Wynne, C. D. L. &. Bhatt S. S. (2017). Effect of Pet Dogs on Children’s Perceived Stress and Cortisol Stress Response, Soc Dev. May; 26(2): 382–401. Published online 2016 Jul 28. DOI: 10.1111/sode.12203.

Turner, J. (2011). Animal Assisted Therapy and Autism Intervention: A Synthesis of the Literature, Research Papers. Paper 119. Available at: http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/gs_rp/119.

Lloyd, J., & Reesa, S. (2014). The effect of the Classroom Canines™ program on reading, social/emotional skills and attitudes to dogs of selected primary school students. In: Abstracts from the 23rd Annual Meeting of the International Society for Anthrozoology. p. 212. From: ISAZ 2014: 23rd Annual Meeting of the International Society for Anthrozoology, 19-22 July 2014, Vienna, Austria.

Relationships Australia State and Territory websites