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?
PHYSICAL HEALTH BENEFITS
“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.
PSYCHOLOGICAL HEALTH BENEFITS
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.
CLINICAL – THERAPEUTIC BENEFITS
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 http://www.tsh.scot.nhs.uk/Care_and_Treatment/docs/PARS %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