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My experience and research: How animals help development and wellbeing

I’ve had pets my whole life. My parents first bought my sister and I hamsters from the age of about 4, but my parents bought us our first cat, a ginger tom called Jake when I was 7 and that was when my love and admiration for cats began. After Jake came Holly, Gizmo, Melody, Mickey, Ruby, Binx and finally, my best friend and companion, Salem. Salem is a black Bombay, Bombays are known as ‘Velcro cats’ because they constantly want to be touching their owners, they are very affectionate and like to follow their owners. I purchased Salem whilst I was at university but of course had to leave him with my parents during this time, I missed him and thought about him all the time and he was an inspiration for one of my creative writing assignments about the strong bond between a homeless young woman and her cat.

I have loved all my pets and they have all been a great comfort to me throughout my life, especially when I was at school and didn’t have any or many friends and turned to them to ease my stress and anxieties, but Salem and I have been through a lot together. After my separation and divorce, Salem and I were alone together for the first time in our lives and spent COVID lockdowns together alone.

Salem helped combat my loneliness during the COVID lockdowns. Humans are social creatures by default. Humans generally need interaction, touch, and communication to thrive. Loneliness has the same negative health consequences as smoking. Psychology Today published an article regarding a study led by Dr Ratschen from the University of York, Dr Ratschen and her team sent out questionnaires to participants about the participants’ mental health and their relationships with their pets before and after strict lockdowns -

“The vast majority of pet owners considered their pets important sources of emotional support. For example, 87% said their pets helped them cope with the Covid situation. Ninety-five percent agreed with the statement “I cannot imagine being without my animal at this time."

The study also found that humans are more attached to larger animals like dogs and horses but there were stresses for the pet owner during lockdowns such as accessibility to vet care and how to care for their pets if they themselves caught COVID.

Last year, Psychology Today published an article titled, ‘Is Owning a Pet Beneficial to Autistic Children?’ which discusses different studies regarding autistic people and how animals can help their mental health and social/communication skills.

“Studies generally find an increase in levels of plasma OT following stroking dogs, with levels varying depending on the closeness of the relationship between the dog and the individual (Odendaal & Meintjes, 2003). While research suggests this to be a general trend, there are some discrepancies, such as Miller et al.’s (2009) finding that an increase in plasma OT in response to interacting with a pet dog occurred only in women, in their study.

Increases in levels of oxytocin have been associated with increases in social interaction and accompanying increases in eye contact and empathy (Auyeung et al., 2015), the lowering of levels of social anxiety (Kirsch et al., 2005), as well as improved learning in rats (Uvnäs-Moberg et al., 2000).”

The summary of the article concludes that some autistic children find animals a comfort due to animals due to them being non-judgmental and unconditional positive regard, as well as animals’ body language and facial expressions being less complex and difficult to interpret.

When I worked in my previous role, one of my responsibilities was walking and taking care of the school’s therapy dog, cocker spaniel Evie who belonged to one of the staff members of the school. Walking Evie and having her around was beneficial to my mental health and she definitely had a huge impact of the students’, helping them with their social and communication skills. Eve also helped some of the students overcome their fears of dogs.

Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis was one of the first psychologists to introduce animals to patients. Freud discovered that patients opened up more to him and were more willing to communicate with him when Freud brought his pet dog with him to sessions. Freud brought his dog, Jofi with him to sessions to help relax during his sessions with patients but noticed Jofi also helped with his patients, mostly children and adolescents. Freud believed that dogs are a great judge of character and can read peoples’ emotional states well.

“Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies. Quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their object-relations.” - Freud

However, it was Boris M. Levinson who coined the term “pet therapy” in the 1960s. During one of his therapy sessions, he noticed his patient, a child opened up more in the presence of his own dog, Jingles and was talking to Jingles more than him. Levinson’s research was ridiculed by some mental health professionals during a presentation on pet therapy but it was only taken more seriously by the mental health field when they read about Freud’s use of Jofi in therapy sessions.

Equine-assisted therapy is a term used to describe interacting with a horse. It has been shown to be beneficial for people with autism. In a journal titled ‘An Evaluation of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorders: Therapist and Parent Perspectives’ by Ang and Mcdougall, they reference the benefits of horse therapy from different studies,.

‘Horseback riding was found to be a useful form of therapy in children with ASD (Trzmiel et al., 2019) and helped improve low moods in participants by building their self-confidence (Kern et al., 2011). It has been reported that children with ASD are able to develop motor skills and gain a sense of achievement by steering the horse (Chandler, 2017; Trzmiel et al., 2019).’

Ang and Mcdougall go on to reference the studies related to small animals, in this instance the benefits on therapy with guinea pigs,

‘Recently, guinea pigs have become a popular choice when it comes to AAT. In a study by O’Haire et al. (2013), teachers were asked to rate their students on the interaction and play with guinea pigs. The teachers reported that their students showed greater social skills and fewer problem behaviours as a result of the activity.’

Ang and Mcdougall’s own study consisted of collecting data through questionnaires from therapists and parents regarding the benefits of animal therapy. The sub themes for the questionnaires included - physical, sensory, and emotional.

The physical benefits mentioned by the parents and therapists mentioned the feelings of being in a safe space.

The sensory benefits mentioned included, ‘touching animals to being attentive to the environment. The therapist (Sophie) believes that animals are able to provide a dynamic multisensory experience, as different animals have different levels of arousal, which offers the potential for arousing and de-arousing influences. ’

Finally, the emotional benefits of AAT mentioned by the parents and therapists include, ‘building self-confidence, acceptance, bringing out hidden qualities and behavioural learning outcomes.’

There is no doubt that animals have positive and strong effects on autistic individuals and other neurodiverse people. The studies performed have all shown this and my own experience along with other peoples’ experience has shown me that animals offer a great comfort and security to us humans. I urge that anyone who loves and cares about animals but cannot have a pet in their own or cannot access AAT/animal therapy to visit farms, animal sanctuaries and even cat cafes which are becoming more and more popular here in the UK.

By Alexandra Farnese


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