Health & Wellness Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond (Part 2)

Panda and Charlie

Pets bring people more than companionship. They enhance physical, psychological, and emotional health and wellness. Anna Zendell, PhD, MSW, program director at Excelsior College’s School of Health Sciences explains the human-animal interaction health trends with veterans, children, individuals experiencing health issues, and developmental disabilities.

Excelsior Life: The American Psychological Association (APA) defines the interactions that occur between humans and animals as they relate to psychology and psychological well-being as Human-Animal Interaction (HAI).What are some of the HAI trends in physical and emotional health?

Charlie at nursing home
Charlie at nursing home

Zendell: First, HAI is becoming more widely accepted in many venues. We have heard for decades about animals being used in hospitals and nursing homes, even in schools for children with special learning needs. Recently, we hear much more about workplace wellness programs incorporating animal visits; colleges bringing in therapy dogs for students during finals; libraries using “read to your dog” programs to boost literacy and self-confidence in children; and equestrian therapy programs for veterans, people with autism and other developmental disabilities.

We also know that HAI is used successfully in rehabilitation for people recovering from strokes and in prisons to help prisoners rehabilitate emotionally and develop vocational skills. Recently making headlines is the use of HAI for our military service members returning with serious post traumatic stress; the military is embracing the use of service animals for stress reduction, as well as for functional assistance for those who have been wounded.

Second, use of animals to promote emotional health has gained unprecedented acceptance. Today, we employ animals to assist people with anxiety, post traumatic stress, grief, and loneliness. Animals are often viewed as nonthreatening, nonjudgmental, and unconditional in their acceptance of their people. That in itself is often comforting and healing. Therapy dogs have been introduced into family court settings to help children feel safer. For example, Broward County in Florida is doing a lot to promote use of canines in family court.

In addition, many nursing homes are using brightly colored aquariums filled with fish and aquatic plant life to assist residents with dementia who begin to exhibit high levels of agitation and confusion. Residents prone to agitation will often watch fish in an aquarium for a half hour or more.

Excelsior Life: Are pets being incorporated into detection and recovery of medical conditions?

Zendell: We know that animals can make a profound difference in the recovery of people with conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and strokes. Animals, particularly dogs, also are increasingly being used to detect cancers, as well as to alert to certain health crises before they occur. Early detection dogs assist in forewarning of seizures, hypoglycemic shock, and other chemical imbalances. Horses, dogs, cats, llamas, and other animals are being used to help people recovering from strokes to relearn balance, walking, speech, hand motor skills, and many other life skills.

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

Excelsior Life: With emerging trends and growing acceptance of the use of animals in therapeutic and non-therapeutic settings comes a growing pressure to develop policies and legislation to ensure public health and personal safety. What are some of these changes?

Indeed with the growing use of animals in therapeutic and non-therapeutic settings comes the need to review what policies are in place governing personal safety and public health as well as the health of service animals. In 2011, the Americans with Disabilities Act, revised several key sections governing service animals. These updates aimed to address the increasing use and variety of service animals by clarifying definitions of service animals, and clearly stating where service animals may accompany their owners, and grounds under which a service animal may be denied access.

There also is a strong emphasis on protection of personal and public health mainly driven by health providers, such as hospitals and nursing homes, schools and other facilities. Health providers are facing challenges to develop policies that meet the needs of their patients seeking an animal-assisted therapy or intervention, other patients who may not wish to be around animals or who may have allergies, and that also adhere to state and federal guidelines. Some facilities are more open to offering animal-assisted interventions than others.

Additionally, policies are needed to ensure the welfare of the animals. Animals that assist humans need proper food, hydration, exercise, and veterinary care. Animals can be overworked, despite their humans’ best intentions. Pets are wonderful partners in human health, but they also have physical and emotional health needs. Animals need time to recharge and just be pets.

Panda and Charlie
Panda and Charlie

Excelsior Life: What are additional psychological and health benefits of pets?

Zendell: The health benefits of having pets are myriad. On a psychological level, many pet owners express feeling more connected to others in their environment and less lonely. A pet dog or cat may be a lifesaving family member, keeping the person interested in life and life’s stresses to a minimum. Likewise, many dog walkers know that going out with a dog can elicit smiles and conversations from passers-by!

Being around pets can also promote feelings of empathy, self-esteem, and responsibility to another living being. This is especially true for children. Green Chimneys is a wonderful example of the use of the human-animal connections teaching children who come from very difficult life experiences that they are worthy of love, that they have purpose and value, and that they can contribute to the well-being and happiness of another living creature.

On the physiological level, people who either own or regularly interact with pets tend to be calmer and more relaxed. Even a few minutes with a pet can decrease stress indicators, such as cortisol, a stress hormone, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and heightened anxiety. Pets are also believed to help bolster immune functioning. As mentioned already, particular attention is being paid to the beneficial roles of animals for people living with conditions such as autistic spectrum disorders, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

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If you missed Part one in this series, click Health & Wellness Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond to learn about companion, therapy and service animals.

For more information on this subject, Excelsior College offers a course called “Human-Animal Interactions.”

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