Jasmin is an academic tutor and research assistant at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. This blog is based on her social work honours research project on human animal interaction and the benefits to mental health. Email Jasmin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Background: Animal assisted interventions have had a place in mental health services for a long time, particularly in institutional contexts. However, with the dawn of scientific medicine by the early 20th century, animals were mostly removed from these settings (Serpell, 2006). Animal interaction and the benefits to health were brought back onto the agenda in the 1980s’, following a ground-breaking study that found reduced mortality rates in patients with coronary disease who were pet owners compared to patients who did not own a pet (Friedmann et al., 1980). Since then, a growing body of research has shown that interaction with animals can be beneficial to mental and physical health and well-being in various contexts including therapeutic interventions (Dell et al., 2011), pet ownership (Allen et al., 2002) and working with farm animals (Berget et al., 2011). Today, animal assisted interventions are increasingly recognised and utilised in a variety of settings and across different target populations. For example, therapy dogs at schools and nursing homes, equine assisted therapy for people with mental health issues or substance addiction, and companion dogs for soldiers with PTSD.
Why should Social Workers be interested in animal assisted interventions and activities? It is increasingly recognised that interaction with animals can result in various benefits to mental health and well-being, and animal assisted interventions and activities provide a non-medical and holistic way of improving mental health. Such activities can be easily accessible (for example, volunteering at an animal shelter), and can help clients focus on strengths and work towards recovery. Animals are part of many people’s environments and animal assisted interventions are another way to think about achieving well-being overall. It has to be said that such activities and interventions are not suitable for all people or all situations. However, if social workers are knowledgeable and educated about different options and ways in which animal interactions can be utilised to promote mental well-being, they may be able to identify clients who could benefit from it and support them to access it.
My research: For my honours research I conducted a phenomenological study exploring participants’ experiences of the benefits of interaction with animals to their mental health. My research focused on animal interaction in general, rather than specific animal assisted therapies. It aimed to identify in what ways interaction with animals may benefit mental health—something that is not precisely understood.
Participants in the study interacted with animals on a regular basis and in different settings. Specifically, volunteering at a wildlife rescue place, fostering dogs and attending a residential health service that included caring for animals as part of the program.
The study identified eight distinct themes as benefits of interaction with animals, namely that animal interaction provided company and comfort, provided a context for increased social interaction and social skills, helped peopled develop routines and balance in their daily lives, provided opportunities for helping, promoted learning and an opportunity to reach ones potential, provided for fun and enjoyment, helped people develop a sense of achievement and a passion for caring.
The following paper has been published from the study:
Jau, J., & Hodgson, D. (2018). How interaction with animals can benefit mental health: A phenomenological study. Social Work in Mental Health, 16(1), 20-33. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15332985.2017.1302037
Allen, K., Blascovic, J., & Mendes, W. (2002). Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: The truth about cats and dogs. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64(5), 727-739. doi: 10.1097/01.PSY.0000024236.11538.41
Berget, B., Ekberg, O., Pedersen, I., & Braastad, B. O. (2011). Animal-assisted therapy with farm animals for persons with psychiatric disorders: effects on anxiety and depression, a randomized controlled trial. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 27(1), 50-64. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0164212X.2011.543641
Dell, C. A., Chalmers, D., Bresette, N., Swain, S., Rankin, D., & Hopkins, C. (2011). A healing space: The experiences of First Nation and Inuit youth with equine-assisted learning. Child & Youth Care Forum: Journal of Research and Practice in Children’s Services, 40(4), 319-336. doi: 10.1007/s10566-011-9140-z
Friedmann, E., Katcher, A. H., Lynch, J. J., & Thomas, S. A. (1980). Animal companions and one-year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit. Public Health Reports, 95(4), 307-312. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1422527/pdf/pubhealthrep00128-0003.pdf
Serpell, J. A. (2006). Animal-assisted interventions in historical perspective. In A. H. Fine (ED.), Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice (2nd ed., pp.3-20). California, CA: Elsevier.