The power of the human-animal bond in improving mental health and well-being is becoming increasingly recognized. This bond is traced back to the domestication of animals over 30,000 years ago, but it is likely that connections between humans and animals sharing territorial spaces existed even before this time. The human-animal bond is characterised by an on-going, reciprocal connection in which both humans and animals fulfil certain roles for their mutual benefit. An example of this is the early domestication of wolves to dogs which is thought to have been facilitated by humans becoming convenient sources of food scraps and wolves becoming protectors of human living quarters and farm lands. Theories suggest that through these collaborative interactions, humans and wolves influenced each other’s brains. Estimates show that after domestication, the frontal regions of dog brains, which contribute to analytical thinking and reasoning, significantly decreased compared to their ancestral wolf brains. Conversely, in human brains, the mid-regions that underlie emotion processing reduced over time. These brain changes are aligned with the respective co-habitation roles of humans as strategic planners and dogs as sensory alarm systems for hunting or protection.
These brain changes emphasize the depth, strength and collaborative nature of human-animal bonds which are key to animal-assisted interventions in psychotherapy. Animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy are two forms of animal-assisted interventions. Animal-assisted activities constitute informal human-animal interactions that are guided by animal professionals without a defined treatment protocols and generally have motivational, recreational or educational purposes. For instance, animals are often brought into nursing homes to brighten the days of elderly residents or animals at zoological facilities may engage with the public during educational programmes. In contrast, animal-assisted therapy is a goal-directed intervention conducted by mental health professionals as part of a defined treatment protocol with an essential role in the therapeutic process.
Research has consistently provided evidence that human-animal interactions within animal-assisted interventions can improve our emotional well-being and reduce physiological stress responses across a wide range of settings, including hospitals, psychiatric facilities, and nursing homes. Such enhanced mental health following animal-assisted interventions is likely to result from three main elements: neurochemical releases, emotion facilitation and self-efficacy skills.
In terms of neurochemical releases, touching, making eye contact or even being in the mere presence of an animal has been shown to evoke the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin, also referred to as the love hormone, is conducive to pro-social behaviours, and feeling caring, loving, positive and bonded toward other beings. This can decrease feelings of social isolation or loneliness, and boost feelings of happiness and overall positive mood.
In terms of emotion facilitation, therapy animals can aid us in expressing emotions or vulnerabilities more easily. This may be an effect of decreased anxiety through the human-animal interaction, which can put us at greater ease to discuss sensitive topics. Clients of animal-assisted therapy have further reported that they simply feel safer with the animal there and able to be themselves without feeling judged. This highlights the reciprocal care and protection we may inherently experience when bonding with an animal – feelings that began thousands of years ago. Therapists have also found it beneficial to re-direct attention to the animal in order to reduce perceived pressure of clients who are not comfortable being the centre of attention. This can include sharing stories about the animal or asking how they think the animal may feel in certain situations.
Finally, self-efficacy skills have been emphasized in the process of improving mental health through animal-assisted interventions. Regular interactions with animals induce a sense of responsibility in us for their care and for meeting their needs of food, shelter, grooming, and play. Residents of a psychiatric facility, who were diagnosed with depression, engaged in weekly farm work with animals and highlighted that their time at the farm made them feel useful and able to complete work tasks – something they had struggled to experience in the outside world where they often saw people treating them as less able or trustworthy. This resulted in improvements in self-esteem, autonomy, and independence, and also facilitated boundary setting and empathic understanding. Crucially, the residents reported seeing immediate benefits of their work when animals responded positively and sought interactions with them.
While animal-assisted interventions have shown great promise in improving mental health, we need to consider both sides of the equation. The human-animal bond grew out of reciprocal, collaborative relationships and mutual benefits. We need to maintain this reciprocity to ascertain therapy animals are also getting their needs for companionship, and physical and mental well-being met. Moreover, we need to be careful with our tendency to anthropomorphize animals as it is paramount that we continue to let animals remain animals rather than think of them in human terms. This is crucial in managing our expectations and not becoming overly reliant on our furry, feathery or scaly friends for emotional support. Protective measures need to be in place not only for humans, but also for the animals themselves. Therapists need to be sure that the animals are trained and certified for therapy, and that they know they animals well enough to anticipate if they are getting stressed and remove them from such situation. Unfortunately, current research on the effects of animal-assisted interventions on therapy animals is limited. However, there is evidence that when interventions are conducted in an aware and protective manner, few behavioural and chemical signs of stress are seen. Importantly, future research is needed to determine how therapy animals can best benefit from these interactions, anyone who has ever shared their lives with companion animals will know that some gain great enjoyment from human contact, attention, and care.
Taken together, the human-animal connection has been a profound part of our bonding and mutual development over thousands of years. Many argue that losing this connection has contributed to our isolation and stress as humans in the modern world. Animal-assisted interventions are one way of rekindling this relationship and counteracting the factors contributing to poor mental health. When these interventions are conducted in line with the collaborative and mutually beneficial nature of such human-animal bonds, they are likely to have a powerful impact on both the humans and the animals involved.