Familiar Therapy: The benefits of animal interaction

The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated. -Mahatma Gandhi.

Animals have long been wonderful in their role as protectors of people, and not just from direct physical harm. Alongside seeing-eye dogs, dogs can be trained to detect seizures, many animals are used in occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical rehabilitation for recovery patients. Aside from there occupational therapeutic roles, animals are valued companions in homes all across the world which certainly affects the quality of our lives. Could that companionship too be beneficial to our health?

Over 71 million American households (62%) have a pet(1), most of which consider the pet part of the family(2). Some research studies have found that people who have pets have healthier hearts, stay home sick less often and make fewer visits to the doctor, get more exercise, and are less depressed in general.


Physical Health Impacts

Familiars may improve heart health by lowering blood pressure and regulating heart rate during stressful situations. In 2002, researchers conducted a study comparing performance, resting heart rate and blood pressure spikes during a math task between people with an animal companion present, and people without. Those with the companion had lower resting heart rates before beginning the exam, had fewer blood pressure spikes during the exam and their heart rates returned to normal faster after completion of the exam. People with the companion present also made fewer errors on the exam. There findings indicate that having an animal present could lower the risk of heart disease as well as lower stress levels so that performance on a task may improve(3). Similarly, a secondary study discovered that having your dog in the room lowered blood pressure better than taking a popular type of blood pressure medication (ACE inhibitor)(4).

Though the research is limited and needs further exploration, children’s exposure to companion animals may also ease anxiety. One study conducted tests on blood pressure, heart rate and behavioral distress in healthy children between the ages of 3 and 6 during two routine physicals at their doctor’s office. At one visit, a dog unknown to the child was present and at the other the dog was absent. When the dog was present, children had lower blood pressure, lower heart rates and less behavioral distress(5).

These finding suggest that animal presences can decrease stress and create a more relaxed feeling. While it is possible that family and friends can create these same responses, interpersonal relationships can cause stress as well, animals are less likely to cause that sort of stress. The social support provided by a pet might encourage more social interactions with people, reducing isolation and feelings of loneliness. For example, walking with a dog has been found to increase social interaction unlike walking without a dog(6).

Pet ownership amongst the elderly might also be an important source of social support. In one study, the elderly were found to better be able to perform acts deemed “activities of daily living” such as climbing the stairs, bending, kneeling, or stooping, taking medication, preparing meals, and bathing and dressing oneself. There were not significant differences in abilities between people whom owned cats versus people whom owned dogs, neither did the length of time owning the animal or level of attachment effect the ability to perform these tasks. While the study did not look deeply into psychological effects, they suggest that perhaps the care-giver role may contribute to overall well-being and a sense of responsibility(7).


The Challenges of Measuring Positive Impact

The effect of human-animal interaction is not fully understood as much of the evidence we have currently comes from studies of current health. This may mean that a person could be in good health because they have a pet, or that they are more likely to get a pet because they are in good health. Someone with poor health may be less likely to decide to have a pet because they may feel they do not have the time or energy to devote to such a bonded situation. One study suggests that having a pet for a longer period of time is more beneficial to your health and thus their lessened visits to doctors, but it is also possible that people with pets have less time for doctors’ visits or are less concerned with minor ailments. In addition, people who love their pets are know the topic of research may be likely to bias their answers in order to show how much they believe their pets improve their lives.

Likewise, the definition of pet effects the issue. Does having a goldfish give the same benefit as having a dog or cat? Most studies are conducted on persons owning cats or dogs, making conclusions about ownership of birds, lizards, fish, or other pets difficult. Aside from that, does the amount of time spent with the animal effect the health benefits received? These issues have been briefly noted but require more exploration(8).


Temporary Familiars

Research has been conducted on temporary companionship with children and the elderly. While these studies have mixed results, some positive findings of interactions with a therapy dog include reduced registered levels of pain and anxiety among hospitalized children and adults, as well as increased focus and interaction among children with autism and other developmental disorders. In the elderly, interaction with a therapy dog resulted in more social behaviors, more interaction amongst residents of the nursing home, and less loneliness overall(9). While the research is not always consistent, and research groups are often small, these results show there may be some benefits to even brief interactions with a therapy animal.


The Big Picture

The research findings are encouraging and so it makes sense to conduct more studies on the human-animal interaction and its possible benefits. We don’t yet knows precisely what types of animals influence what types of health issues or what characteristics of the interaction are most beneficial. People who have pets know that there are many benefits to having familiars. If research shows benefits to health under certain circumstances, that information can be used to change policies in ways that benefit even more people. Potentially changing rules and polices at schools, health and living assisted facilities, residential treatment centers, residential housing associations, and other places where people’s exposure to animals is often discouraged btu could be highly beneficial.

For more scientific research about human-animal interaction, see How Animals Affect Us: Examining the Influence of Human-Animal Interaction of Child Development and Human Health by Peggy McCardel, Sandra McCune, James A. Griffin, and Valerie Maholmes.  The book is based in part on a workshop sponsored by the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, a division of Mars, Incorporated, and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).


1. American Pet Products Association, Industry statistics and trends.  http://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp

2. Risley-Curtiss C, Holley LC, Wolf S (2006). The animal-human bond and ethnic diversity. Social Work. Jul;51(3):257-68.

3. Allen K, Blascovich J, Mendes WB (2002). Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: the truth about cats and dogs. Psychosom Med. Sep-Oct;64(5):727-39.

4. Allen K, Shykoff BE, Izzo JL Jr. (2001). Pet ownership, but not ace inhibitor therapy, blunts home blood pressure responses to mental stress. Hypertension. Oct;38(4):815-20.

5. Nagengast SL, Baun MM, Megel M, Leibowitz JM (1997). The effects of the presence of a companion animal on physiological arousal and behavioral distress in children during a physical examination. J Pediatr Nurs. Dec;12(6):323-30.

6. McNicholas J, Collis GM (2000). Dogs as catalysts for social interactions: robustness of the effect. Br J Psychol;91:61-70.

7. Raina P, Waltner-Toews D, Bonnett B, Woodward C, Abernathy T (1999). Influence of companion animals on the physical and psychological health of older people: an analysis of a one-year longitudinal study. J Am Geriatr Soc. Mar;47(3):323-9.

8. Thorpe RJ Jr., Serpell JA, Suomi S (2011). Challenges to human-animal interaction research. In McCardel P, McCune S, Griffin JA, et al, Animals in Our Lives (pp. 217-225). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

9. Johnson RA (2011). Animal-assisted interventions in health care contexts. In McCardle P, McCune S, Griffin JA & Maholmes V (Eds.), How animals affect us (pp. 183-192). Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.


This entry was posted in Education, General, Health, Science and Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.