Therapy for you and your pet

The use of pet animals as therapeutic treatment for people… does the evidence hold up?

Therapy for you and your Pet Therapy for your PetThe use of pets as a means of providing therapeutic treatment is nothing new.
The Greeks in BC were the first, using horses as therapeutic treatment. But the first use of pet therapy in modern day medical science was in the 1960’s by the child psychiatrist Boris Levinson. He used dogs in his sessions with children suffering emotional and psychological disorders as he found they increased a child’s ability to communicate and talk about their feelings.


The efficency of pet therapy put forward by psychologists and doctors is based upon Edward Wilson’s biophilla hypothesis. It contends that because of a person’s primordial reliance on animals for signs of threat and safety, observing animals in a peaceful state is likely to induce feeling of safety and well-being. This then creates a state where personal change and healing is possible in a person.

Pet therapy is most popular in helping people overcome psychological challenges, such as depression and PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). The case that pet-therapy is able to help minimise the symptoms of depression has also been persuasively put forward by DR Cynthia Chandler. Her studies showed that 20 minutes with a therapy dog helps to produce both health inducing and social hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins.

Therapy for you and your Pet Therapy for your Pet

The production of these hormones helps to minimise the sense of isolation and loneliness felt by sufferers of depression and provides a sense of social support i.e helping people strengthen their relationship others.

It has been observed that even the most withdrawn of patients open up and interact with both the animal and other patients. Similarly, the role that animal therapy can have in helping people overcome PTSD is evidenced by the charity Horsebacks. This has been attributed to horse’s ability to give the former marines mobility and dignity as riding empowers them.

Nonetheless, while this evidence is extremely compelling the extent that it can be taken as scientific evidence is undermined by the result bias prevalent in pet-therapy research. What is meant by this is that research that contradicts pet therapy’s claims is often not published. An example, of this is shown by DR Alisa Greenwald’s study on the therapeutic effect of horseback riding that found it had no therapeutic impact on the children who participated in the study.

In addition, the methodological shortcomings with studies that give evidence for pet therapy compound this problem. This is exemplified, by the fact that the data is interpreted by the researchers themselves creating potential bias in the results. The potential for bias is further exacerbated by the measurement methods adopted in some pet-therapy research. An example, of this is when researchers are seeking an assessment of an experience of pet-therapy and there are difficulties for the person to communicate clearly, such as someone with dementia.

Inevitably, this creates a reliance on care givers and family members for the assessment creating the potential for bias as they may project their own feelings about the practice or the particular pet involved.

Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings evidence for pet-therapy should not be dismissed.
The reason for this is that not all pet-therapy research has to rely completely on interpretation. A case in point being the tangible and measureable results which have come from applying pet-therapy to children with learning disabilities. An example, of this is Marine Grandgeorge’s research which has shown how pet-therapy can trigger and reinforce positive social behaviour in children with autism. This is because these children’s interactions with animals help them learn to empathise and how to follow instructions.

The ‘read’ programme in Utah provides a further illustration of how pet-therapy can produce concrete results in children’s education, as it benefited children who were struggling with their reading. The dogs used in the programme listened to the children read aloud providing an environment of unconditional acceptance and providing also their full interest. The results of this programme highlight strong evidence for pet-therapy because the children who participated showed an average two level improvement in their reading levels.

Therapy for you and your Pet Therapy for your PetMoreover, studies produced have also found a correlation between owning a cat or a dog and having a lower level of blood pressure. This further supported by research that found patients who were recovering from heart problems, lived on average one year longer if they owned a pet. This has led to studies to infer that this is evidence that the therapeutic qualities of pets as they have a calming effect on blood pressure and heart rate as they decrease stress levels. An example, of one is Karen Allen’s research that randomly assigned either a dog or cat to 24 stockbrokers and found that their cardiovascular measurements where significantly more than stockbrokers who were not given a pet. However, the evidence behind their being a strong causal link between the therapeutic qualities of pets and a lower blood pressure appears to be anecdotal. This is because a lower level of blood pressure among pet owners could be attributed instead to the fact that those who look after pets living healthier and less stressful lifestyles. Similarly, they also fail to explain why pets would be unique in creating this stress relief as the results would likely be similar for other preferred stimuli.

So, the bottom line: does the evidence for the use of pet animals as therapeutic treatment for people hold up? 

Undoubtedly, pet-therapy is a useful means of aiding treatment of psychological problems such as depression and PTSD. It is also able to help children overcome learning difficulties. The reason for this is because pet-therapy is uniquely able to full-fill the role of social support in a way that other treatments cannot.

Nonetheless, the evidence supporting pet-therapy is significantly undermined by the methodological and bias challenges that pet-therapy research currently has. However, it would extremely unfair and unreasonable to disregard outcomes from pet-therapy that produce directly observable outcomes and therefore the research provides relatively reliable evidence. This does not extend to the claims that the therapeutic qualities of pets is able to lower blood pressure as much of the evidence for this is  anecdotal and therefore unreliable.

To this question, there is clearly relatively strong evidence in favour of animal therapy but until further research is conducted and methodological shortcomings are overcome, the evidence in favour of it cannot be viewed as completely reliable.

(Article source: Jordan Creed)

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