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Animal assisted therapy reduces stress

Updated on April 16, 2013

A number of researches have been conducted to test if and how companion animals can affect human health. These have revealed that ones health can benefit positively using animal assisted therapy (Wilson, 1998; Fine, 2006; Wisdom et al., 2009).

It has been supported that distress or psychological stress can be reduced by using animals in a therapeutic manner (Fine, 2006, pp.97). Therefore animal assisted therapy (AAT) involves using animals to keep company to people in order to help them physically and psychologically. For many years studies have been conducted to explore the benefits of animal assisted therapy on stress. Findings from a research study carried out by Allen in 2002 have shown that such therapy can alleviate stress.

my two little angels
my two little angels

Stress

Stress is a term which is quit difficult to define. The simplest way to explain stress is, as the situation in which a person must adapt to changing conditions (Hans Selye, 1925). Although stress is considered to be a psychological experience it can also affect the physical well-being of a person. However, it is important to note that this experience is subjective; for instance one person may find a situation very pleasant but for another person the same situation may be stressful, such as flying by airplane or taking an exam.

Research studies investigating the effects of AAT on stress

A study carried out by Siegel in 1990, examined the human-animal bond in terms of whether stress could be reduced. He tested this in a group of medical care patients. The patients had supported that the animal made them feel secure and loved whereas it also kept them company. The findings of this study showed that those who owned animals were more able to cope with stressful events than those who had no pets.


A slightly different approach to examine the effect of animals on stress was conducted in 2001. Webb and Drummond (2001) had chosen another type of animal, the dolphin, to see its effect on humans’ psychological well-being. The study explored humans swimming in the ocean, with dolphins as well as without dolphins. The results therefore revealed a decrease in anxiety when swimming accompanied by dolphins, accordingly suggesting that this type of human-animal interaction can be used as a therapeutic method to reduce stress.


In 2002, a rather different study (Allen et al.,, 2002) had examined companion animal ownership among married couples. Half of the participants owned an animal and the other half were non-owners. They were all given stressful tasks to fulfill. One task was mental arithmetic and the other task was to keep their hand in ice cold water for 120 seconds. It had been argued that those who had animals with them throughout the test had shown to have had lower blood pressure as well as lower heart rates. Non-animal owners did not perform well on the tasks showing to have had more stress even when they were alone or in the company of a friend or spouse. Therefore, the findings of this study support that animals can serve as buffers for peoples reactions to intense stress, and also diminish stress.


There have also been studies supporting no effect of such therapy on stress. In fact, some support that a companion animal may increase stress

A study (Havener et al., 2001) which took place in 2001 showed different findings. The aim of this study was to examine how a dog, as a companion animal, may affect physiological arousal and behavioral distress of children going through dental procedures. Half of the children who participated in this study had a dog present throughout the procedure whereas the other half did not. The results showed that no significant differences in physiological arousal or behavioral distress had been found between the two groups. Irrespective to this, the analysis had also indicate that children who expressed distress before the procedure had shown to have had reduced physiological arousal when the dog was nearby.


Where studies have found companion animals to reduce stress, more recent studies (Wisdom, Green and Saedi, 2009) have found that having a companion animal may increase stress. Wisdom, Green and Saedi, argue that stress levels could be increased when people undergo the experience of losing their pet (e.g. when the animal dies) or rejection from their pet. They also argue that the concern of caring for a companion animal may increase stress in individuals who are already stressed and vulnerable. Moreover it is also suggested (Bryant, 1990; Wilson and Terner, 1998) that even worrying about their pets safety might make people feel overwhelmed or lacking control, ending up with depression or very stressed out.

How companion animals have shown to alleviate stress

A possible reason for companion animals seen as stress alleviators is due to their ability to make people feel physically and emotionally secured by diminishing some degree of anxiety and fear which is experienced (Likourezos et al., 2006; Altshuler, 1999; cited in Wisdom et al., 2009, pp.431). This is similar to the notion of a child having a teddy bear.

Moreover, another possible reason indicated by Allen et al. (2002) and Wisdom et al. (2009) is that people perceive animals as non-judgmental. In Allen et al.’s study participants accompanied by a friend or spouse possibly had felt their performance was judged so possibly for this reason their stress levels increased.

For some people companion animals may be the case, but for others it is not. Feelings of stress differ from person to person. It does not mean that because companion animal owners have lower stress levels than non-animal owners that companion animal ownership can help reduce stress.

But how effective is Animal assisted therapy on stress?

Many studies support that companion animals or animal assisted therapy may help reduce stress experienced by people at different times in their life. However, it can not be said for sure that there is a direct effect. For some people this might be the case whereas for other people it may not (e.g. people with asthma problems). An important benefit of using animals as a therapeutic method is due to the low cost consisted to this kind of method.


Furthermore, studies examining the effects of companion animals on human stress (Bryant, 1990; Banks and Banks, 2002; Gilbey et al. 2007) should not only consider the positive outcomes of having a pet but also the negative outcomes, such as the money spent on food, visits to the veterinary, risks of disease etc.


It has also been argued (Fine, 2006; Wilson and Turner, 1998; Wilson, 1994) that stress should be tested using a qualitative approach due to quantitative methods limitation to find all the changes (emotional and physical) that occur.


Moreover, researchers (Havener et al., 2001) argue that research should be carried out among people with high levels of stress, so that the effect that companion animals’ have on stress could be more accurate.

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    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 4 years ago

      Hi Wasteless Project, I am very happy that you stopped by to read my hub! I really believe that dogs, as well as other pets, could be very beneficial for people's well being. Thank you so much for commenting and voting!

      Also, many thanks for following my hubs :) I truly appreciate your support.

      Have a wonderful day,

      Chris

    • Wasteless Project profile image

      Wasteless Project 4 years ago from Worldwide

      Hi Chris, thank you for sharing this hub! I totally believe in the therapeutic effect of dogs! I recently also saw a very interesting docu about a dog-therapist who managed to get through to a very withdrawn autistic boy (well not the therapist managed - the dog did;) Voted up!

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 4 years ago

      It would be my pleasure. I grew up having lots of animals and I really enjoy reading about personal experiences with animals. I will be heading your way very shortly to do so :) Thanks for letting me know.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 4 years ago

      Yes Cindy is certainly surrounded by a lot of love :) She doesn't even look her age :) We also kept one of her puppies from her last birth, so she has her daughter for company as well. Muffin is now 8 and she loves her mama so much, I remember how protective she was with Cindy when she had the surgery.

      Pets are just amazing and loving!

      True love, really, is unconditional.

    • Danast profile image

      Dana Stamps 4 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      Also, if you're ever interested, I have a hub on "The Amazing World of Animals". I think that you would enjoy reading it. It has many of my personal stories about my animals that I had growing up as a child, as well as stories about my kitty, Princess.

    • Danast profile image

      Dana Stamps 4 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      Wow, Cindy must be surrounded by lots of love. 17 is a long life for any canine! I'm sure she appreciates all of the love that you give her everyday. Animals are so awesome! We can learn so much from our animal friends. They show us what true unconditional love is. Thanks again for the great article!

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 4 years ago

      Hey Danast,

      Thank you so much for sharing your own experiences. I am absolutely sure that "Dandy" helped many in need and will always be remembered for that.

      I believe that animals are great healers as well, and to be honest those who believe otherwise are mistaken. As you said, they may not understand this, perhaps because they haven't experienced such a bond before. I have had my dog, Cindy since I was a child. She is now 17, shes been through cancer and has overcame it. But i remember when she was sick how hard it was, I felt a tremendous pain for my baby girl. She was always there when I was I kid and a teenager, I found it very comforting to talk to her, it felt like she would understand, then she would come and put her head on my lap and look at me with those big brown eyes like she was saying "don't worry, everything will be fine".

      Most people say that their pets love is unconditional. I truly believe this but I also believe that pets could even save a persons life. Research in this subject has proven that many people who were about to commit suicide did not do so because of their pets, the thought of leaving their loving pets alone wouldn't allow them to proceed.

      I really appreciate your comments and votes Danast, thank you very much!

      Have a lovely day,

      Chris

    • Danast profile image

      Dana Stamps 4 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      Another great hub! My Mom and Dad's last dog that they had was a Sheltie, and he was a certified therapy dog in Wichita, Kansas. I went with my Mom on about three or four different visits to hospitals and nursing homes. It was amazing to see the people 'come out of their shell', so to speak. Many of them showed no communication at first, but after we brought 'Dandy' (my Mom's Shetland Sheepdog) into the room, they couldn't stop reminiscing about their younger days and the animals that they had once in their lifetime! It was an IMMEDIATE change in behavior! I remember seeing a hand come up slowly, on several occasions, to pet Dandy, and I knew that his healing was already in affect. Dandy died of cancer a few years ago, but he will never be forgotten, nor will the memories of the people that he helped. Yes, animals are wonderful companions and healers. I don't care what anybody says that is contrary to this. They obviously just don't understand. There is something special about the animals. I have a 12 year old domesticated, short haired feline named 'Princess', and she has been there for me through 'thick and thin'. When I was going through horrific sciatic pain for almost three years, she was there for me. Without her, I don't know what I'd do! She is solid white with yellow/green eyes, and she definitely does not act like she's a senior cat. She is a busy body that gets into everything. I love her so much! She is my little companion, and I will admit that I spoil her rotten. Well, you've got to spoil them somewhat. Lol! I have also read that animals can help to increase someone's lifespan. Thank you, again, for such a beautiful hub! I voted up and awesome and beautiful!!

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 4 years ago

      Yes pets are certainly great at alleviating stress, and they could also have a positive effect on depression or loneliness. Thank you for reading and commenting dogfond, I'm glad you liked this hub.

      Take care,

      Chris!

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      dogfond 4 years ago

      Great hub Chris! I personally believe that pets are great stress busters.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      Thank you very much Caroline :), my dogs have been by my side when I went through difficult phases in my life, its amazing how they can affect our mood. I am glad you have enjoyed reading.

    • carolinemd21 profile image

      Caroline Marie 5 years ago from Close to Heaven

      Wonderful hub Chris. I do believe that animals could alleviate stress. When I was going through a hard time in my life, my dog made it a lot better for me. Voted up. :)

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      Dogs are very faithful companions indeed, the love you receive from your pets is one of a kind. Thank you kashmir for both your kind comments and votes :)

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Great and interesting information within this well written hub, being a dog owner all my life i know that dogs are very sensitive to a person and their feelings and emotions and are awesome and faithful companions.

      Vote up and more !!!

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting cyndigreen, I really appreciate it :) Im glad you have found this subject interesting!

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      cyndigreen 5 years ago

      Interesting on every level. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      I am glad you have found my hub interesting KoffeeKlatch Gals. Thank you for your votes and comments :)

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Very interesting. I believe that these animals ar more stress relievers than not. Up and interesting.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      Thank you Movie Master I really appreciate your comments and vote :)

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hello Chris, a very interesting and well written article. Dogs are very sensitive to a person's emotions and are excellent companions, especially when you're feeling stressed or depressed.

      Voting up, thank you.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      Thank you for your comments and votes Chatkath, I'm glad you enjoyed my hub :)

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      Thank you for your voted and for sharing lex :)

    • lex123 profile image

      lex123 5 years ago

      Very useful hub for animal lovers. I have seen many people enjoying the company of their dogs as best stress reliever. Voted up and shared.

    • Chatkath profile image

      Kathy 5 years ago from California

      This is the best chrisachilleos! Not only do I believe that this is true, I have witnessed with our Golden Retriever! If someone raises their voice she will immediately go to that person and start licking their hands, she senses even subtle distress and like so many animals, she is the source of incredible joy.

      Thank you for sharing such a wonderful piece! Up, useful and awesome!

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      thank you teaches12345 :)

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Great hub topic filled with informative news and facts on the use of animal therapy. I love the videos, the Phoenix children's scenes were heart warming. I see that both videos used labs and retrievers a lot as therapy assistants. I understand the statement that people relate to animals better because they may view them as non-judgemental. This would allow people a sense of freedom to let their emotions, mind and body heal. Voted up and interesting.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      thank you for your comments WhitneyM :) very much appreciated

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      WhitneyM 5 years ago

      Thank you for the informative piece! It was a pleasure to read and well organized.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image
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      Chris Achilleos 5 years ago

      thank you Lyn :)

    • Lyn.Stewart profile image

      Lyn.Stewart 5 years ago from Auckland, New Zealand

      voted up and interesting ... Thanks for sharing this info with everyone