The role of animals in supporting mental health and emotional wellbeing is probably not a modern phenomenon. Myers (1998) draws our attention to the book ‘De Canibus Britannicus’, written in the sixteenth century by Dr Cairs in which he advocated the therapeutic use of dogs and recommended that a person afflicted by illness should carry a small dog on their bosom to soak up the disease. In 1699 John Locke prescribed giving children small animals, including dogs, birds or even squirrels, to look after, in order to foster the development of ‘tender feelings and responsibility for others’. The assumption was that this would help children to control their innately ‘beast like’ characteristics.
Later, in 1813, a Quaker called William Tuke founded a progressive institution for the ‘mentally incapacitated’ in York and used familiar animals, including sea-gulls, hawks, rabbits and chickens, to engender ‘innocent pleasure and interactions and awakening of social and benevolent feelings’ in the patients. From this point onwards, animals became commonplace in psychiatric institutions and the British Charity Commission advised that lunatic asylums might keep animals as a means of softening the grim, prisonlike environment.
In 1860 the ‘Illustrated London News’ reported the use of small animals, including cats, dogs, birds and squirrels at the Bethlem Hospital in London, stating that some patients ‘pace the long gallery incessantly, pouring out their woes to those who listen to them, or, if there be none to listen; to the dogs and cats.’ At around the same time, in 1859, Florence Nightingale published her book entitled ‘Notes on Nursing’, in which she advised ‘A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially. A pet bird in a cage is sometimes the only pleasure of an invalid confined for years to the same room.’
Much of the recent research surrounding the use of animals, including dogs, in therapeutic contexts has accumulated over the past forty years and has largely evolved from the pioneering work of Levinson in the late 1960s and 1970s, when he began to note the positive impact that his dog was having in his therapy sessions with children. He claims that this was an accidental discovery, brought about whilst he was treating a child so severely traumatised that they had shut down all channels of social interaction. Levinson left the room momentarily and came back to discover the child talking to his pet dog, Jangles.
There is a growing body of research which indicates the significant impact that animals can play in supporting wellbeing and mental health. Recent studies indicate that Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) can help to:
- Alleviate anxiety.
- Significantly lower emotional, verbal and behavioural stress.
- Reduce blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety levels by releasing oxytocin into the body, which has a calming effect on the nervous system.
- Alleviate depression.
We currently appear to be experiencing a zeitgeist in AAT, evidenced by the rising popularity of animal (and particularly dog) assistive therapies in all walks of life. Newspapers, television programmes and research articles are suddenly awash with stories about dogs and their abilities for human support. My recent online trawl of the Global News website for the first six months of 2018 revealed forty three articles over the past year about how dogs are being used in an increasing number of support capacities, including supporting mental health and wellbeing. It is therefore perhaps not surprising to discover that dogs are now being used in universities across the UK at examination times as a means of supporting students by reportedly relieving stress (Barker et al., 2016). This initiative follows other countries, including Canada where almost half of the ninety-eight universities implement dog therapy initiatives during examination periods as a means of reducing stress.
The apparent benefits of AAT for improving wellbeing and mental health comes with a note of caution. My recent blog points out that not all humans are susceptible to the charms of a therapy dog and Melson reminds us too that animal interventions are subject to changing beliefs and popular trends which can disappear as quickly as they come. In addition, Bradshaw questions the theoretical underpinnings of AAT, likening it to homeopathy: a complementary intervention with no scientific rigour, whereby animals benefit human wellbeing in a manner more apparent than real.
Nevertheless, with growing concerns about the declining wellbeing of children and with Mind reporting that 1 in 4 adults in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, perhaps we should be looking to any provision, including AAT, in an attempt to help alleviate this crisis in mental health.
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Barker, S., Barker, R., McCain, N. and Schubert, C. (2016) A randomized cross-over exploratory study of the effect of visiting therapy dogs on college student stress before final exams. Anthrozoös, 29 (1) pp. 35-46.
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Uvnäs Moberg, K. (2003) The Oxytocin Factor. Cambridge: Da Capo press.