The Role of Pets in Mental Health Recovery

January 8, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Did you know that interacting with dogs and other animals can have a positive effect on individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health issues?

Most people are familiar with seeing-eye dogs or guide dogs, trained to support blind and visually impaired people to go about their day. However, this is not the only example of how animals and animal-assisted therapies can improve people’s health and well-being.

This article explains why pets have a role in mental health recovery, how they benefit, and what you need to know if you are considering animal-assisted therapy or welcoming a pet into your family specifically to help with mental health.

The history of animal-assisted therapy

Animal-assisted therapy was first utilized as a way of supporting those with mental ill health in 1792[1] at the Quaker Society of Friends York Retreat in England[2]. There, patients were free to explore the retreat’s grounds, which housed a community of small domestic animals, as it was believed these animals provided valuable tools for fostering socialization. In 1860, the Bethlem Hospital in England followed suit and introduced animals to their wards to improve patient morale.

Around the same time, Florence Nightingale[3] was thought to encourage interactions with pets as she believed in their beneficial effects in treatment. Elsewhere, Sigmund Freud often chose to have his dog, Jofi, alongside him during psychoanalytic sessions with patients[4].

Freud noticed children and adolescents, in particular, benefitted from sessions where Jofi was present. Still, it was in 1953 that the psychologist Dr Boris Levinson[5] stumbled upon the therapeutic benefits of animal-assisted therapy after leaving his dog alone with a ‘difficult’ child, and upon returning, found the child talking to the dog.

In 1961, Dr. Levinson authored an article titled “The Dog as a ‘Co-Therapist'”[6] that he subsequently presented at an American Psychological Association gathering. Dr. Levinson encountered a mixed response from the audience, with some individuals ridiculing his concepts while others embraced them.

How many pets and pet owners are there in the United States?

According to Forbes, 66% of U.S. households (86.9 million homes) own a pet. Dogs are the most popular pets in the U.S. (65.1 million U.S. households own a dog), followed by cats (46.5 million households). The total number of animals in the U.S. is 76,811,305 dogs and 58,385,725 cats.

Freshwater fish inhabit 11.1 million households, while small animals such as hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, mice, and ferrets are the pets of choice for 6.7 million households.

A survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association[7] suggests that 85% of dog owners and 76% of cat owners consider their pets to be family members, meaning they play a massive part in the home life of most Americans.

Which types of animals are best for well-being?

Dogs

The best-known animals used for support and therapy purposes are dogs. According to Brian Hare, the director of Duke University Canine Cognition Center, the bond between humans and dogs dates back thousands of years. Dogs naturally have a temperament suited to working with humans as they are the only species with a lack of fear towards strangers. Hare describes dogs as “xenophilic,” meaning they genuinely love strangers[8].

While dogs don’t think in terms of language, humans often sense their compassion and communication ability. This fosters a sense of closeness, making individuals feel secure and understood. For those grieving who may be hesitant to confide in others due to fears of being hurt or deceived, pets become a valuable addition to therapy. Dogs contribute significantly to an environment where people can feel safe and accepted[9].

Cats

Interacting with cats has been found to affect health positively and can help reduce physical responses to stress. For instance, the presence of cats has been shown to moderately decrease blood pressure[10] and is associated with a reduced risk of heart attacks and strokes[11].

Many people choose to have a cat for the companionship and friendship they offer. Owning a cat can also improve psychological well-being by providing emotional support and alleviating depression, anxiety, and loneliness[12].

Cats are also believed to enhance the overall mood of their owners. A Swiss study conducted in 2003 suggests the presence of cats can have a comparable effect to that of a human partner, influencing the psychological state of their owner[13]. The researchers concluded that while cats may not directly promote positive moods, they alleviate negative ones.

Other animals used therapeutically

Equine therapy (using horses) is a form of therapy that has been used for many years and has a solid evidence base for its efficacy. Equine therapy ranges from hippotherapy (a physical, occupational, and speech-language therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement as part of an integrated intervention program to achieve functional outcomes) to therapeutic riding (a riding lesson specially adapted for people with special needs).

Pig therapy is also becoming more popular in facilities as diverse as airports, hospitals, nursing homes, and special-needs schools. Pigs increasingly serve as emotional support animals for individuals with conditions such as autism or anxiety and veterans experiencing PTSD.

Llama therapy is well suited to elderly patients by providing gentle support and height, aiding them in standing up and walking.

Dolphin therapy is not advised due to a lack of evidence as well as ethical issues regarding the welfare of these animals while in captivity.

The benefits of pet ownership during the pandemic

The pandemic lockdowns offered a unique opportunity for researchers to understand more about the benefits of pet ownership and how these relationships can impact mental health.

One study[14] concluded that engaging in a relationship with a pet can help humans decrease their perceived loneliness and stress in everyday life – especially in crises. Another study[5] found animal ownership seemed to mitigate some of the detrimental psychological effects of the Covid-19 lockdowns.

A third study[16] went into more detail on what pet owners experienced during COVID-19, finding general agreement among participants that companion animals offered reliable support, unconditional love, affection, and companionship that nurtured relationships free from judgment and conflict. Companion animals were often seen as capable of uplifting moods, reducing stress, and aiding individuals in coping with the Covid-19 lockdown phase. Crucially, they provided a constant source of affection without judgment.

What’s the relationship between various mental health conditions and pets?

Loneliness

According to a 2008 study[17], pets can serve as substitutes for human friendships. This phenomenon is more likely to occur when individuals have limited or unsatisfying human relationships, as pets offer them unconditional love, they may not find elsewhere[18].

Autism and childhood trauma

A review of the experimental evidence regarding animal-assisted therapy (AAT) for children or adolescents with or at risk for mental health conditions was published in 2016[19]. Researchers concluded the most promising animal-assisted therapies were equine therapies for autism and canine therapies for childhood trauma.

Stress

According to research[20], animals have been found to protect individuals with lower levels of social support, mitigating the adverse effects of stressful situations. The presence of a companion animal has been shown to act as a buffer against negative emotions[21].

However, there is also evidence[22] that pet ownership can increase stress, particularly in older people. This may be because many older adults are either retired or have limited income, meaning the financial responsibilities associated with pet ownership can potentially lead to heightened stress levels.

Depression

Pet owners may be less likely to suffer from depression due to a range of factors they experience thanks to their pets, including companionship, stimulation, relaxation, gratitude, and self-affirmation[23].

However, there is also a suggestion[24] that owning pets may worsen depressive symptoms in older adults, as the associated responsibilities and emotional attachments linked to pet ownership can be overwhelming.

Anxiety

Studies into reducing anxiety through access to pets often focus on hospital animal therapy interventions. One such study[25] measured anxiety levels in hospitalized children who were awaiting surgery, finding that even brief visits from a therapy dog and handler were enough to reduce anxiety.

Schizophrenia and Borderline Personality Disorder

Recent studies[26] have highlighted that owning a pet promotes community engagement and meaningful involvement, thereby aiding in the development of coping skills among individuals diagnosed with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and Borderline Personality Disorder.

Are there any ethical concerns to consider when using animals to help those suffering from their mental health?

Despite the longstanding existence and practice of animal-assisted therapy (AAT), the lack of standardization poses potential risks for animals and humans. The absence of clear guidelines on using animals in therapeutic settings can lead to stress, injuries, and health complications for the animals.

Research indicates that despite quality guidelines to safeguard the well-being of therapy animals, there have been negative interactions between human participants and therapy dogs, including mistreatment and teasing by patients and staff at therapy locations.

In some studies, individuals with specific disabilities had to be excluded due to the increased stress experienced by their therapy dogs, resulting in a decline in overall well-being. Ethical considerations arise regarding the introduction of animals into AAT settings where clients have a history of violence, raising questions about whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

In the case of equine-assisted therapy, there is a need for further studies on equine behavior to better understand stress signals exhibited by horses. Handlers can ensure a safe and healthy therapy session by comprehending these stress signals and minimizing stress for the horses.

For therapy animals, limited time for rest, multiple sessions, and extended durations of sessions have been linked to higher stress levels. Assessing animals for signs of fatigue and stress is crucial to prevent negative experiences for both humans and animals involved.

Animals used in therapy should have a specific duration and number of sessions and access to proper environmental conditions, food, water, and rest.

Discover holistic mental health and trauma treatment at The Center • A Place of HOPE

Whether it’s you or a loved one seeking support, our dedicated team can assist you. As a Top 10 rated treatment facility for depression in the U.S., we offer specialized programs for anxiety, OCD, and PTSD treatment.

At The Center, we embrace a Whole Person Care approach, empowering your loved one to rediscover their true self. We firmly believe that every individual is much more than the mental illness they face. Reach out to us today for further information about admissions and financing options. Let us be part of your journey towards healing and recovery.


1. Velde BP, Cipriani J, Fisher G (2005). “Resident and therapist views of animal-assisted therapy: Implications for occupational therapy practice.” Australian Occupational Therapy Journal. 52 (1): 43–50.
2. Serpell J (2000). “Animal Companions and Human Well-Being: A Historical Exploration of the Value of Human-Animal Relationships.” Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice: 3–17.
3. Velde BP, Cipriani J, Fisher G (2005). “Resident and therapist views of animal-assisted therapy: Implications for occupational therapy practice.” Australian Occupational Therapy Journal. 52 (1): 43–50.
4. Stanley Coren (2010), “Foreword,” Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy, Academic Press, ISBN 978-0-12-381453-1
5. “Dr. Boris M. Levinson Dead; Aided Disturbed Youngsters.” The New York Times. 1984-04-03.
6. Levinson, B. M. (1962). “The dog as a ‘co-therapist.'” Mental Hygiene. 46: 59–65. PMID 14464675.
7. American Veterinary Medical Association, 2018 and 2022 Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook
8. Figel, Amanda.. “The Healing Power of Dogs.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, National Geographic News, 21 Dec. 2012. Web. 03 Dec. 2015.
9. Beck, Alan, and Aaron Honori Katcher. Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship: New York: Putnam, c1983, 1983. Print.
10. Allen, K.; Blascovich, J.; Mendes, W. B. (2002). “Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: the truth about cats and dogs.” Psychosom Med. 64 (5): 727–739.
11. Qureshi, A. I.; Memon, M. Z.; Vazquez, G.; Suri, M. F. (2009). “Cat Ownership and the Risk of Fatal Cardiovascular Diseases.” Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology. 2 (1): 132–135. PMC 3317329. PMID 22518240
12. Fogle, Bruce, ed. (1981). Interrelations Between People and Pets. Charles C. Thomas Pub. Ltd. ISBN 0-398-04169-5.
13. Turner, Dennis C.; Rieger, G.; Gygax, L. (2003). “Abstract: ‘Spouses and Cats and Their Effects on Human Mood.'” ScientificCommons.org. Berlin: magazine.One UG.
14. Damberg, S. and Frömbling, L. (2021) ‘“Furry tales”: Pet ownership’s influence on subjective well-being during covid-19 times’, Quality & Quantity, 56(5), pp. 3645–3664. doi:10.1007/s11135-021-01303-7.
15. Ratschen E, Shoesmith E, Shahab L, Silva K, Kale D, Toner P, Reeve C, Mills DS. Human-animal relationships and interactions during the Covid-19 lockdown phase in the UK: Investigating links with mental health and loneliness. PLoS One. 2020 Sep 25;15(9):e0239397.
16. Shoesmith E, Shahab L, Kale D, Mills DS, Reeve C, Toner P, Santos de Assis L, Ratschen E. The Influence of Human-Animal Interactions on Mental and Physical Health during the First COVID-19 Lockdown Phase in the U.K.: A Qualitative Exploration. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jan 22;18(3):976.
17. Dotson, M.J., Hyatt, E.M.: Understanding dog–human companionship. J. Bus. Res. 61(5), 457–466 (2008)
18. Archer, J.: Why do people love their pets? Evol. Hum. Behav. 18(4), 237–259 (1997)
19. Kimberly Eaton Hoagwood, Mary Acri, Meghan Morrissey & Robin Peth-Pierce (2017) Animal-assisted therapies for youth with or at risk for mental health problems: A systematic review, Applied Developmental Science, 21:1, 1-13, DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2015.1134267
20. Amiot, C.E., Bastian, B.: Toward a psychology of human–animal relations. Psychol. Bull. 141(1), 6–47
21. Janssens, M., Eshuis, J., Peeters, S., Lataster, J., Reijnders, J., Enders-Slegers, M.-J.: The pet-effect in daily life: an experience sampling study on emotional wellbeing in pet owners. Anthrozoös 33(4), 579–588 (2020)
22. Anderson, K. A., Lord, L. K., Hill, L. N., & McCune, S. (2015). Fostering the human-animal bond for older adults: Challenges and opportunities. Activities, Adaptation & Aging, 39(1), 32–42.
23. Moretti, F., De Ronchi, D., Bernabei, V., Marchetti, L., Ferrari, B., Forlani, C., … Atti, A. R. (2011). Pet therapy in elderly patients with mental illness. Psychogeriatrics, 11, 125–129.
24. Needell, N., & Mehta-Naik, N. (2016). Is pet ownership helpful in reducing the risk and severity of geriatric depression? Geriatrics, 1(4), 24.
25. Katherine Hinic, Mildred Ortu Kowalski, Kristin Holtzman, Kristi Mobus, The Effect of a Pet Therapy and Comparison Intervention on Anxiety in Hospitalized Children, Journal of Pediatric Nursing, Volume 46, 2019, Pages 55-61, ISSN 0882-5963,
26. Brooks, H., Rushton, K., Walker, S., Lovell, K., & Rogers, A. (2016). Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: A study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition. BMC Psychiatry, 16(1), 409.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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