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Animal assisted therapy reduces stress
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.
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.
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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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