It’s thought that about 450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem and, closer to home, one in four British adults will experience some sort of mental disorder each year – with depression and anxiety the most widespread.

Along with more traditional treatments such as talking therapies and medication, Caroline Griffith, animal well-being expert and Communications Manager at natural and raw pet food manufacturer Natures Menu, says that animals are increasingly being used within hospitals and rehabilitation centers to help with mental health and wellbeing.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

The bond between humans and animals is a deep and complex relationship but it is one that has been explored for centuries. Animals have long been trained to aid humans in a range of ways, but modern Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), or Pet Therapy as it is also known – where pets are brought in by clinicians to be used as part of mental health treatment – is thought to have started in the 1960s.

American child psychologist Boris Levinson discovered, apparently by accident, that a child he was treating opened up when his dog, Jingles, was present in the sessions. This paved the way for more research in this area with studies on how animals can be of benefit to people with a range of mental disorders, including Alzheimer’s dementia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and depression.

Sasha, the dog provokes a response

Clinical psychologist Hanne Homer, who spent 17 years working for the National Health Service (NHS), took her dog, Sasha, to visit patients and reports generally seeing an “alertness” which was otherwise missing.

“It is not a prescribed treatment but we were interested to see what would happen,” she said. Dr. Homer, who worked in both mental health and neuropsychology, took Sasha into several different treatment centers.

“The kind of people Sasha saw had suffered a stroke, traumatic brain injury; people with dysphasia – language problems – plus people with physical disabilities and people with depression,” she said.

“What came across as a general theme is that with all these people who were withdrawn and not terribly motivated, there was some kind of alertness when they saw Sasha.”

Dr. Homer, who now runs her own business, The Walnut Tree Centre, in north Norfolk, which combines psychological therapy and yoga practice for the treatment of anxiety, depression, mood disorders, trauma, and substance dependencies, said a couple of incidents, in particular, stuck in her mind.

“There was a gentleman who had a language impairment. I had seen him for a couple of psychotherapy sessions before I brought Sasha in and for the first time he actually managed to express a word, ‘Alsatian’. I later understood, from his partner, that he had an Alsatian at home.

“The other was a patient with severe depression, he was in a wheelchair and never really initiated any movements. When I came in with Sasha he very slowly, very laboriously, reached his hand out to stroke her.”

Why do humans respond to animals?

Sasha is a nine-year-old an Australian Cattle Dog who, while frightened of wheelchairs at first, soon settled into her role. “It was like she knew she had to be quiet and to sit and be stroked,” said Dr. Homer, who hopes to use Sasha in her current venture where indicated.

“The mystery is what is it in animals that bring this out in people? I think it is something that needs more research.”

Dr. Daniel Allen, the founder of Pet Nation and columnist for Mental Health Today magazine, adds:

Since childhood, everybody has had their own personal experiences with animals. Encounters can trigger individual memories, and stimulate those who may be shy or have issues with socializing or communicating. Animals are well-known social lubricants. Interaction can increase confidence and help individuals feel more widely accepted within their community and society.

“The therapeutic benefit of an individual animal is linked to a person’s mental health and human development needs, rather than particular dog breeds or species per se.”

Alternative animal assistance

Many different types of animals, including horses and cats, have also been used as part of AAT studies. The Mental Health Foundation carried out a survey with Cats Protection involving more than 600 people, half of whom described themselves as having a mental health problem.

The results show that 87% of people who owned a cat felt it had a positive impact on their wellbeing, while 76% said they could cope with everyday life much better thanks to the company of their feline friends.

Half of the cat owners felt that their cat’s presence and companionship was most helpful, followed by a third of respondents describing stroking a cat as a calming and helpful activity.

Commenting at the time, Eva Cyhlarova, head of research for the charity, said:

“Previous research has supported the contribution of pets to our mental health and our findings support the view that caring for a cat can improve your wellbeing.”

While there is evidence that pets can play a part in mental wellbeing, more dedicated studies are needed if AAT is to become a more regular part of mainstream treatment.

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