Health & Wellness Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond

Therapy dogs, Chanel and Precious.
Therapy dogs, Chanel and Precious.
Therapy dogs in training, Chanel and Precious.

The human-animal bond can enhance physical, psychological, and emotional health and wellness. Today more than 43,000,000 households own a dog and 36,000,000 own a cat. (US Pet Ownership report: AVMA) Pets bring people more than companionship. Anna Zendell, PhD, MSW, program director of Excelsior College’s School of Health Sciences explains the health impact of companion, therapy, and service animals in part one of this feature series.

Excelsior Life: Excelsior College offers a course called “Human-Animal Interactions”. It would be helpful to start off with the basics. Can you explain the definition of the term, human-animal interactions?

Zendell: There are two meanings for human-animal interactions (HAI). First, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines the interactions that occur between humans and animals as they relate to psychology and psychological well-being.

Second, HAI addresses the role of the human-animal bonds in developing empathy, attachments, coping with loss and grief, developmental stages of life, human health, violence prevention, and the other roles animals play in health prevention and treatment.(Society of Counseling Psychology, American Psychological Association, 2014).

We have expanded this meaning beyond pet ownership to include pet therapy or animal assisted activities. Researchers and clinicians continue to explore the benefits of time spent with a non-human living being.

Precious, malti-poo therapy dog in training.
Precious, malti-poo therapy dog in training.

Excelsior Life: What is the difference between companion animals, therapy animals, and service animals?

Zendell: It is important to distinguish. Companion animals are typically pets owned by the person deriving benefit from the intervention, for example a beloved cat owned by a homebound older adult. Therapy animals are also pets, and generally very well trained in obedience. Dogs can often take Canine Good Citizen training too. However, they are not legally accepted by federal law as a service animal. A service animal is a very highly trained animal, which works for and is generally owned by the person in need of assistance; this animal is generally responsible to help the owner with his or her emotional, psychological, or physical well-being. (HABRI)

Excelsior Life: Can animals other than dogs impact wellness?

Zendell: HAI can be quite successful using non-mammalians like rodents, fish, birds, reptiles, and even certain insects. I know one child on the autistic spectrum who has bonded very deeply with a pink toe tarantula that is kept his special education classroom! The presence of this spider brings him calm during transition points and focus during learning activities he finds particularly stressful.

Excelsior Life: Two widely accepted forms of HAI are animal assisted activities and animal assisted therapy. Can you explain the difference?

Anna Zendell and Charlie
Anna Zendell and Charlie

Zendell: Pet Partners, a non-profit human services organization dedicated to ethical use of animals to improve people’s well-being, defines animal assisted activities as those more casual activities, such as pet visiting, that occurs in groups or with multiple people.

Animal assisted therapy is defined as a “goal directed intervention delivered by a professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of practice of the person’s profession.” Therapy always includes expressly stated goals, which become a part of a person’s care plan.

Charlie at nursing home
Charlie at nursing home

For example, if I take my dog, Charlie, to do an animal-assisted activity with an older adult diagnosed with dementia, this might involve going to a nursing home to visit the residents on a dementia wing. If I take my dog to that same nursing home for a therapeutic visit, this may entail meeting with one resident during her Memory Care session, so that she can stroke his fur while she engages in a psychotherapeutic activity. Charlie’s visit would then be part of her formal care plan.

Excelsior Life: Pets can help with physical, psychological, and emotional health. Can you share some research highlights?

Zendell: The research base is growing and efforts are being made to increase the rigor of scientific methodology. Partnerships are being forged between veterinary health, health researchers, public health, behavioral health, and other disciplines to develop collaborative studies. Research centers of excellence have been established at a number of major universities, and the work coming out of these centers is encouraging!

One of the most widely researched subjects surrounds the use of animals for children’s health. The American Humane Society is embarking on an impressive study, Canines and Childhood Cancer which builds on existing research, into the effects of therapy dogs on children with cancer and their families.

Additionally, Granados & Agis (2011) reviewed research into the benefits of hippotherapy, also called equestrian or equine therapy, in children with special needs. The authors concluded that working with horses affects many body systems concurrently, including ranging from sensory to muscular, and skeletal, and that this synergy leads to positive emotional, psychological, and educational outcomes.

There is also literature with examples of the effectiveness of HAI in behavioral and emotional health. Green Chimneys, a day and residential service provider for at risk children and youth in Brewster, New York, has developed a microcosm of human-animal interactions, bringing animals of all shapes and sizes into the lives of children and adolescents in therapeutic interventions.

Another example is Aubrey Fine, an internationally renowned clinical psychologist, who uses birds and dogs in his clinical practice with children and families. He is a leader in building an evidence base for HAI in behavioral health. Dr. Fine’s Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy (2010) reviews the use of HAI and lays out the research as a best-practice evidence base.

Excelsior Life: Can you elaborate on research focused on dogs and wellness?

Zendell: Much of the research involves dogs. One of my favorite studies examined the extent to which dog owners met the daily recommendations for moderate to intense physical activity in a given week. In their study, 53 percent of dog owners in the study who walked their dogs regularly met the daily recommendations for physical activity.

Research is also being conducted on pets and influence on cardiovascular health. Campo and Urchino (2013) found that having a companion dog present during and after stressful times lowered their humans’ heart rates and diastolic blood pressure. The National Institutes of Health has taken an interest in the role of pets in cardiovascular health, particularly after a cardiac event. One NIH-funded study looked at 421 adults who had suffered heart attacks. A year later, the scientists found, dog owners were significantly more likely to still be alive than were those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.

Excelsior Life: HAI research is also being conducted on the health benefits of pets for children with autistic spectrum disorders and other disabilities, and people with physical limitations. Can you explain?

Zendell: Animals can help with physical and behavioral health rehabilitation, and for older adults in our society. Also, research into loss of a companion or service animal is growing. The grief process can be overwhelming for someone who may be socially isolated, lonely, or who may rely on the animal to navigate on a day to day basis.

For children with disabilities, therapy dogs can be helpful. In one Upstate NY high school, a school transition counselor works with her therapy dogs in training with students who have various special needs. The dogs are also utilized by the school psychologists and other staff in the building to benefit all students. She has found that the dogs have a calming influence, decrease anxiety, depression, and lower stress levels in an academic environment where some students are under great pressure to perform. The dogs can be great partners with lessons that help students learn how to read body language, teach appropriate hygiene skills, and improve reading skills in a non- judgmental environment.

In addition, the Upstate NY high school transition counselor also shared a story of how the dogs had an unexpected impact on one of her students. Upon entering the classroom one day, a student on the autism spectrum who normally showed minimal interest in interaction with adults or other students, totally lit up upon seeing the dogs and asked if he could pet them. He was drawn to them and exhibited a very gentle calmness. His teacher was amazed since this was the most animated she had seen him.

Up Next: Part Two as we explore health trends in the field of human-animal interaction.




Alicia Jacobs
About Alicia Jacobs 298 Articles
Alicia Jacobs is Excelsior College’s Director of Communications and Community Engagement. She responsible for internal communications, public and media relations, employee and community engagement. She assists with special projects, events, committees on behalf of the President's Office. Jacobs career includes television production, broadcast media, healthcare, renewable energy, sports & entertainment, hospitality and higher education. She is also an Emmy Award-Winning TV Producer. During her career, she has worked for three international charities. Her work with non-profits continues today as she leads community engagement initiatives for the College including the Annual Excelsior Cares Volunteer Week. Outside of work, Jacobs is community-minded. Jacobs is a graduate of the University at Albany and earned her Master of Arts, communication with concentration in public relations from Western New England University. She is also a graduate of Excelsior College's Leadership Academy.

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