For more than 15,000 years, humans and animals have lived and worked together. From tamed wolves to the carefully-bred and trained dogs of today, these animals have offered people assistance, protection and comfort since the earliest traces of our organized societies.
While canines are perhaps the best-known and longest-serving support animal (the first literary reference to a dog leading a blind person dates from 79 CE), today the idea of a pet being ‘man’s best friend’ extends to multiple species. Their roles are changing too, offering both practical and therapeutic help to people.
As the body of evidence grows around the emotional and social benefits of human-animal relationships, appreciation of the benefits animals can bring to the support and treatment of a wide range of conditions is becoming increasingly common.
“The therapeutic benefit of companion animals is attracting increasing interest among health and social science professionals,” says Dr. Markus Edingloh, Head of Bayer Animal Health Veterinary Scientific Affairs. “There are numerous examples of the life changing potential of human and animal relationships.”
Beyond guide dogs
Guide dogs for the blind are the most common form of support animal, with the first training school founded in 1929 in Nashville, Tennessee. Today, service dogs are trained to carry out a variety of tasks based on an individual’s needs. This goes beyond aiding blind or deaf owners to diabetic alert dogs recognizing drops in blood sugar levels and seizure alert dogs that can predict and respond to oncoming epileptic fits.
It’s not only people with disabilities or diseases who can benefit from being around animals. There is a growing body of research around the positive impact of pets on their owner’s cardiovascular health, including helping to lower blood pressure and reduce stress. One study found that people who live in households with dogs are almost 15% less likely to die as a result of heart disease.
These advantages of time spent with animals is leading to the introduction of therapy animals (again most commonly dogs) in hospitals, with the aim of improving the outcome of recoveries, particularly in serious childhood illnesses.
When Robert Soliz was discharged from the army in 2005, after serving in a heavy artillery quick-reaction force in South Baghdad, he struggled to adjust to life back home in California.
Finding himself anxious and unable to show affection to his family, Soliz is one of the 300,000 veterans for the Afghan and Iraq conflicts to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the US alone.
He is also one of an increasing number of PTSD suffers to see their lives improve thanks to therapy dogs. Programmes such as K9s For Warriors and Paws for Purple Hearts are helping soilders to relax, communicate and adjust to everyday life.
Therapy and emotional support animals are not trained to carry out specific tasks like service animals, but instead act as an integral part of the treatment process.
The calming effect of interacting with animals means the use of pets of all varieties in the treatment of emotional and mental health conditions is becoming increasingly mainstream. The types of animals used in these treatments can range from birds to dolphins, but began with ever-reliable dogs.
There are records of animals playing a role in the treatment of mental health issues dating back to the 18th century. Sigmund Freud was one of the first to explore animal-assisted therapy, finding the calming presence of his Chow Chow dog Jofi helped his patients, in particular children, to open up.
However, it was Boris Levinson, known as the father of animal-assisted therapy, who first began to seriously promote the use of therapy animals to other mental health professionals in the 60s and 70s.
Beyond these dedicated service animals, however, there is evidence to suggest that spending time with animals can be beneficial to anyone throughout life.
Ask any pet owner, and you can be near certain they will attest that their animals are often an important part of their social lives and companionship is definitely another way in which animals are improving the lives of their owners.
This is particularly pronounced in the lives of the elderly, where in the UK, a recent survey found that as many of 73% of over-50s are lonely. Increasingly aging populations in many parts of the world means there is a pressing need to tackle this issue, which is linked to health problems, from depression to coronary conditions.
Pets have been found to have positive mental and physical effects on older people. Animal companionship can have a positive impact on those living with dementia, specifically on the behavioural and psychological symptoms of the conditions. Physically too, studies have observed a reduced deterioration of ability to carry out daily tasks.
At the other end of the age range pets can play an important role in early lives. Childhood and adolescence are important developmental years, which impact health and well-being long into life. Pet ownership at these stages in life can be beneficial to emotional, cognitive, behavioral, educational and social development.
As with the emotional role of pets in human lives, in strict scientific terms there is still a lack of clinical research to back up initial findings about the physical health benefits of the human-animal bond. But studies have shown that a positive mindset and the more broadly-defined happiness can have positive effects on physical health. And though pet owners may have different opinions about which animal makes the best pet (as the old dog person or cat person division continues), they will certainly agree that their pets make them happy.
The human relationship with animals has changed since we first began living and working together. Pets – be they big or small, furry or scaly – are close companions, sources of comfort and motivation for getting out and doing some exercise for millions around the world. As the body of research grows, the physical and emotional benefits of these relationships increasingly appear to be more than just a matter of opinion.