The Psychological Benefits of Animals

Posted by: Asa Don Brown on July 6, 2012 4:09 pm












 The old thinking was that if your family had a pet, the children were more likely to become allergic to the pet.  And if you came from an allergy-prone family, pets should be avoided.”                                                                                                

~ James E. Gern, M. D.

As humans, we are often known to show superior attitudes to our fellow dwellers of this planet.   In fact, we not only have an ability to cognitively outwit the animal kingdom and we have a means with which we can measure our intellectual superiority through IQ (Intelligence Quotient) testing.  Ironically, despite our intellectual superiority over the animal kingdom, we have yet to manufacture a substitute for our four legged friends.  Moreover,  the health benefits received from relationships with our four legged and feathered friends seems to be irreplaceable. 

What is it about the relationship with our pets that we cannot live without? Why is it that children are instantly drawn to a new puppy or kitten? What causes the heart of a hardened criminal to melt like butter when playing with a puppy?


“Having a dog in infancy is associated with higher IL-10 (IL= Interleukin) and IL-13 cytokine secretion profiles and reduced allergic sensitization and atopic dermatitis. (Dr. Gern, et. al.) …Findings suggest that postnatal exposure to dogs can influence immune development in a genotype-specific fashion and thereby attenuate the development of atopy in at-risk children.” (Dr. Gern, et. al, 2004, Online) Interleukins are responsible for regulating immune responses including anti-inflammatory.  Dr. Gern’s, et. al, findings tell us that exposure to animals, at an especially young age, have known health benefits specifically in relationship to immunity.  Children with enhanced immunity are known to be resistant to illness. 


The psychological benefits are manyfold.  From infancy through to our golden years we are capable of reaping from the benefits of animals.  Whether you are interacting with a beloved one in your home or an outdoor farm animal, the benefits are countless. 

As humans, we have a need for social interaction, stimulation, and physical contact.   Animals provide a healthy perspective and balance of unconditional love and acceptance.  They provide an ear that will hear and a shoulder with which you may lean upon. 

Dr. Eunice Johannson’s research on Human-Animal Bonding: An Investigation of Attributes

suggests that there is significant advantage to animal – human bonding. “The advantages of bonding and its evidence are seen in development and enhancement of self-esteem and related aspects of the individual’s psychology.  Healthy bonding is reciprocal and has mutual benefits for the players.” (Johannson, 1999, p. 120)

Research conducted by Singer, Hart, and Zasloff (1995), of homeless adolescents, revealed that those who had dogs felt less isolated. Research conducted by Kirton, et. al. (2004) discovered that the simple presence of an animal, in the life of a child, influenced the child to feel more positive about life and others. 


As therapists, we are often challenged to discover the “right fit” for our patients.  Unfortunately, the traditional therapeutic model of talk therapy does not work for everyone. Moreover, even if the traditional model works, there are times with which we are forced to think outside the box in order to find answers for the patient’s therapeutic needs. There is no such thing as a perfect remedy, cure, or therapeutic approach. 

“Traditional forms of therapy, which rely on talking and trusting, sometimes fail children (or adults) who are mistrustful of adults. The cow on the farm may in fact be the best therapist a child can have while in treatment. The cow, and other farm animals can become a companion for the child, one in whom he or she can confide all of his or her misgivings, heartaches, and pains. The cow and other farm animals can serve as the catalytic agent that brings the child and the therapist together .” (Mallon, 1994,  p. 470).  While the cow is incapable of conducting a battery of psychological tests or diagnosing a psychological disorder; it maybe the cow that proves a positive agent toward change and well being.   Whether it is a dog, cat, cow, pig, or horse, animals may serve as an instrument of change; similar to art, play, or personally interactive therapy, the animal helps to disarm a child allowing the child to feel unthreatened.  

“Whether therapy is delivered to individuals or groups of patients, the benefits that animals bring are unquestionably therapeutic for many patients.” (NHS, 2012, Online) Importantly, one must take into account, the patient’s needs, psychiatric or psychological status, and carefully evaluate the person’s behavior, and environmental factors (e.g., family dynamic). Unfortunately, not all patients will benefit from animal interaction.  


Therapeutic safety is a must when working with any animals, and like any therapist, joining a team the animal should be evaluated and trained.  It is always important to know the qualifications, personalities, and credentials of those working with your patients.   Of equal importance, it should be determined whether or not the patient-client is capable of associating and respecting an animal.  The therapist should determine whether the patient, and his or her environment, will be a good match to the animal.  Also, the therapist needs to evaluate whether or not the patient and animal are capable of interacting from a healthy perspective.  

Likewise, it is equally as important to carefully consider the environment of the patient-client patient-client and familial dynamics within the home.  Not all people are a match for all animals, nor are all animals a match for all people.   It is always important to recognize, not only the safety of the patient-client, but the animal as well. 

Authors:   Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C. and Dr. Eunice Johannson, Alberta Registered Psychologist, Neuropsychologist



Gern, J. E. et. al. (2004) Effects of dog ownership and genotype on immune development and      atopy in infancy. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 113 (2) 307-314

Johannson, E. E. (1999) Human-animal bonding: An investigation of attributes. (Doctoral Dissertation). University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta. 0-612-39548-0

Kirton, A., Wirrell, E., Zhang, J., Hamiwka, L. (2004). Seizure-alerting and -response behaviors in dogs living with epileptic children. Neurology 62: 2303-2305.

Mallon, G. (1994) Cow as co-therapist: Utilization of farm animals as therapeutic aides with children in residential treatment. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 11 (6), 455-474

National Health Service for Scotland, NHS (2012) Animals as therapy in mental health. Retrieved June 30, 2012, from %20-%20Animals%20as%20Therapy%20booklet%20-%20Aug%2007.pdf

Singer, R. S., Hart, L., Zasloff, R. (1995). Dilemmas associated with rehousing homeless people who have companion animals. Psych Reports 77: 851-857.


*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

16 comments on “The Psychological Benefits of Animals”

  1. The idea that those who have struggled with mental health can benefit from the companionship of animals is fascinating to me. Because pets are members of the family who love and trust without condition and who are wholly dependent on their owners, I often wonder if it is this type of relationship that enables children to mature and become more independent.

  2. Lynne Greene says:

    What a great and enlightening article, I experienced a traumatic psychological injury, the bond I developed with our dog has changed my world. He’s very intune to my emotions and provides tremendous support and distraction when its really needed. His presence has gotten me behind the wheel of my car again as well as having the strength and confidence to deal with people with limited anxiety levels. I’m not certain how any of this works I just know it’s working for us

  3. Dear Dr. Mary Streit

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

    It is very true that animals are positive contributors towards good physical and mental health than once considered. Animals are not only good on the psyche, but on may on many aspects of the human condition. It is truly fascinating how amazingly beneficial animals are.

    Warm Regards,

    Dr. Asa Don Brown

  4. Dr. Mary streit says:

    It is interesting to note that children who are raised with animals produce more antibodies and less likely to develop allergies. Perhaps this is an adaptive function where if we are exposed to animals at a younger age, we are less likely to develop allergies as we age?

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Deborah Pickering says:

    Yes, a wonderful article. I believe whole heartedly that animals bring love and companionship into our lives.
    It is a wonderful thing to see when animals can be incorporated into therapies which enrich the lives of the recipient.
    I agree with Rosemarri, above, in gratitude for addressing the well being of the animals used for this purpose.
    Too often, if things don’t go well, the animal is blamed when in fact, it is the humans’ behavior toward the animal which causes a problem.
    Thank you Dr’s. Brown and Johannson for providing such delightful insight into this topic.

    Deb P.

    1. Dear Deb P.

      Thank you for your very kind words. Furthermore, I am equally as appreciative of your review and comments. I too believe that “…animals bring love and companionship into our lives.” It is wonderful to have creatures offer us love and affection. It’s unfortunate that many animals are maltreated and mistreated by intentional and unintentional owners.

      Again, thank you for your time and feedback.

      May you have a blessed day.

      Warm Regards,

      Dr. Asa Don Brown

  6. Dr. Brown,

    Thank you for this insightful article. I grew up on a farm and the animals were my therapists. As an adult, I have become a therapist and provide equine assisted psychotherapy as one modality available to the client.

    I have witnessed children with severe anxiety learn to manage their symptoms through working with horses. I never cease to be amazed at the progress that can be made in short order with animals are used as facilitators. The benefits are endless and there is truly untapped magic in allowing the client to experience bonding with animals.

    Thank you for your work and I hope you don’t mind me adding this to my Facebook page. I hope you will “like” my page as well and comment as you see fit.

    Warm Regards,


    1. Dear Bobbie,

      I am sincerely appreciative of your time, feedback, and glimpse into your life. I have no doubt that your work has and will touch the lives of many. I wholeheartedly agree that “The benefits are endless and there is truly untapped magic in allowing the client to experience bonding with animals.”

      Thank you for your time, review, and feedback.

      Warm Regards,

      Dr. Asa Don Brown

  7. Rosemarri says:

    Very interesting article. I especially like the instruction to ensure the safety and well-being of the pets who are “working” in the pet therapy industry. Research has long shown both the psychological and physiological benefits of pets on humans. The emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual connection can be strong. I recall taking our shi tzu-maltese to see my dad (90)when he was in hospital, and to see my father-in-law (83) in nursing home when they both were quite ill. They both brightened immediately when we brought the dog; as did other patients/residents around them as we walked the hall. The dog was a catalyst for conversations with many of the patients/residents who talked about their family pets,even as far back as their childhood. We now have two small dogs and find they help keep us healthy as we have to make sure they take their walks every day, even when we feel lazy. Who can deny the fun of walking into a house after work and having someone run up to you wagging their tail; overjoyed to see you.
    I work in the social services/human resource field and have seen or read about pet therapy in projects for children and adults with autism, youth at risk, victims of family violence, and seniors who engage with pets as part of a program where they help care for the animal. This gives the client/patient/human a purpose in life that takes them outside their own issues, develops confidence and helps them feel needed.

    I was not aware of the allergy sensitization theory. It may work in some circumstances. Our son, who is now in his thirties had numerous allergies and we lived in a very dry climate. We were very careful with his diet and minimized environmental issues as much as possible. My husband is quite allergic to cats so we did not have cats in the house either. We did have a dog briefly when our son was very young and found he was allergic to dog saliva. With his other environmental and food allergies we did not want to risk other health issues. As an adult he now lives by the ocean (as opposed to the prairies) so the light humidity helps with his allergies. He has a dog and so far little grandson does not have issues with the dog.
    I added a link to WebMD – it is interesting slideshow about benefits of pets.

    1. Dear Rosemarri,

      Thank you for taking time to review and offer a comment on my latest article. During my doctoral residency, I was placed with the Ministry of British Columbia; working specifically with families and children. Having that background, I have never heard of anyone (social workers) intertwining social work with pets. That is truly AWESOME!!! Furthermore, I am pleased that you not only have a background, but that you have educated yourself about this much needed area of therapy.

      Thank you for your time, review, and feedback.

      Warm Regards,

      Dr. Asa Don Brown

  8. mary ann gdula says:

    Such a wonderful article! Although we are higher animals, some of us have totally lost our relationships with animals and nature. We are here to live WITH them, and gain immeasurably FROM them. I was born into a household with a dog, and to this day have never been without one(or two). Guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits and fish are no strangers either. I have and continue to learn much of life’s issues from “all creatures great and small”, including my 15 year-old labrador retreiver!

    1. Dear Mary Ann Gdula,

      Thank you for your time and recent comments. Sadly, there are “… some of us (who) have totally lost our relationships with animals and nature.” Perhaps the future holds more in store for those who are part of this newer generation.

      May you have a truly blessed day.

      Warm Regards,

      Dr. Asa Don Brown

  9. Tracy says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful insights Dr Brown. I appreciate the fact that pets and animals teach children empathy and responsibility. I find that it is very interesting that animals can help people recover from mental issues. Pets are members of the family that love and trust unconditionally and are completely dependant, I wonder if this is the basis of the relationship that helps children grow and develop. I am intrigued by the information that a child’s immunity also becomes enhanced by exposure to pets.

    I will have to make sure my daughters play with our pets more.

    Thanks again


    1. Dear Tracy,

      I am sincerely appreciative of your review and comments.

      Awesome, I am pleased to hear that your daughters will have and make opportunities to spend with their pets. It is vitally important that not the children play with the pets, but that the pets have an opportunity to be around the children.

      Again, thank you for your time and efforts.

      Warm Regards,

      Dr. Asa Don Brow n

  10. Leah says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more Dr.Brown. Animals often have added comfort to me in a time of sorrow, boredom or just for the joy of interacting with them. I have lots of allergies but never have issues with animals, I am sure some may be allergic to an animal or two but there are many they could spend time with and benefit from.
    Sincerely, Leah

    1. Dear Leah,

      Thank you for your time and comments. It is fascinating how the research has and is showing that animals are good for the immune system. For countless decades, the thought was, animals always cause or are linked to allergies. Therefore, keep all small children away from them until they are more mature. Ironically, the opposite is true and we have something to celebrate knowing that animals can prove a positive effect at the youngest of ages.

      Again, thank you for your time and response.

      Warm Regards,

      Dr. Asa Don Brown

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