There are a number of animal-assisted activities that involve animals helping humans, including programs designed to improve a person’s emotional or physical health and wellbeing through pet therapy. Pet therapy is a broad term that can include programs and activities that are not necessarily psychological interventions or overseen by a professional, ranging from companion birds and cats in residential aged care to highly trained therapy dogs providing support to adults and children in hospitals, schools and courts.
While many pet therapy programs have not been the subject of rigorous scientific evaluation, in recent years a robust and reliable evidence base for their effectiveness has been building. Findings from a comprehensive review of more than 66,000 articles, for example, suggest that animal assisted therapy may be of benefit to a wide range of individuals, including children with autism, and adults with psychological disorders, including schizophrenia (Maujean et. al. 2015).
There is also evidence to suggest that the human-animal bond positively impacts on both people and animals, and these studies can be used to inform debate about the ethics of using animals in human treatment programs. Therapy dogs have been found to reduce stress physiologically (cortisol levels) and increase attachment responses that trigger oxytocin – a hormone that increases trust in humans. Similarly, in response to the human-animal bond, dogs produce oxytocin and decrease their cortisol levels when connecting with their owner. Dogs have been found to respond in the same way when engaging in animal-assisted activities, depending on the environmental context (Glenck, 2017; Kertes, 2017).
Relationships Australia explored the views of visitors to our website on animal assisted, or pet, therapy by asking them a few questions in the May 2019 monthly online survey.