Published on: June 25, 2021
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Those of us who are animal lovers know instinctively the benefits we experience when spending time with them, whether the animal is a dog, cat, bird, lizard, or pot-bellied pig. Depending on the type of animal, there may be cuddles that warm your heart and calm your nerves, walks that get you out exercising and socializing with your neighbours, and a feeling that you are deeply and unconditionally loved.
IMPORTANTLY, THE THERAPEUTIC VALUE OF OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH OUR PETS IS INCREASINGLY BEING RECOGNIZED BY RESEARCHERS.
In a 2019 survey of 2,036 people living in the United States (including 1,469 who were pet owners) conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) in partnership with Mars Petcare, 85% of respondents indicated that they believe interaction with companion animals can help reduce loneliness, while 76% of respondents said they agree that human-animal interactions can help address social isolation.
Further, the researchers found that pet owners with the closest bond to their pet experienced the highest positive impact on their feelings of loneliness and social isolation. These are especially important findings because social isolation and loneliness are becoming more and more common, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have a sizeable negative impact on health.
ANIMAL INTERACTION & MENTAL HEALTH
Research conducted by Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad and colleagues has revealed that social connection is linked with mortality risk. Dr. Holt-Lunstad reported in a 2017 Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Aging Committee that lack of social connection carries a risk that is comparable to (and, in many cases, exceeds that of) other well-accepted risk factors, including smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution.
There is widespread agreement among both pet owners and non-owners that companion animals can play a role in addressing the societal challenge of loneliness and social isolation.
In a study published in 2014 in Western Journal of Nursing Research, Dr. Nancy Edwards and colleagues examined the influence of an aquarium on the behaviour of 71 residents, and on the satisfaction of 71 staff, in dementia units in three U.S. long-term care facilities. Resident behaviour was assessed using an adapted version of the “Nursing Home Disruptive Behavior Scale,” while staff satisfaction was measured using an adaptation of the “Assessment of Work Environment Schedule.”
After baseline measurements were taken, an aquarium was introduced in the room where residents ate their meals. The aquarium was designed specifically for use in long-term care, with a large viewing area, back lighting, and eight to ten colourful fish to promote good visibility. After ten weeks, follow-up measurements were collected and showed that overall residents’ behaviour score had significantly improved, as did the staff’s satisfaction score. Dr. Edwards, an Associate Professor of Nursing at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, noted that
AQUARIUMS ARE AN INNOVATIVE AND EFFECTIVE FORM OF ANIMAL-ASSISTED THERAPY THAT SUITS A DEMENTIA CARE SETTING.
She also added that behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia are “among the most difficult for staff to handle, so it’s not surprising that by helping improve those types of challenging behaviours in those with dementia, staff satisfaction also improved. This type of intervention is especially exciting because it is non-pharmaceutical, low-cost, and does not require much additional work by the staff.”
More recently, researchers from the University of York and the University of Lincoln in the U.K. found that sharing a home with a pet appeared to act as a buffer against psychological stress during the pandemic lockdown. The study – published in the September 2020 issue of PLoS One – sought to investigate the links between mental health and loneliness, companion animal ownership, and human-animal interactions. The study also set out to explore pet owners’ perceptions of the role of their animals during the lockdown.
THE RESEARCHERS FOUND THAT HAVING A PET WAS ASSOCIATED WITH MAINTAINING BETTER MENTAL HEALTH AND REDUCING LONELINESS.
More than 90% of the nearly 6,000 participants living in the U.K. indicated that they believed that their pet helped them cope emotionally with the lockdown and 96% said that their pet helped keep them fit and active. Interestingly, the strength of the human-animal bond did not differ significantly between species, with the most common pets being cats and dogs followed by small mammals and fish. However, the majority of the pet owners (67.6%) reported having been worried about their animal(s) because of the pandemic, most frequently due to restricted access to veterinary care.
It is important to note, though, that the generalisability of these findings is limited by several factors. For instance, the study population was a convenience sample that was not representative of the U.K. general population, as it consisted largely of female companion animal owners. Additionally, the majority of the participants who did not own a pet reported that they would like to or were planning to have one. The researchers therefore noted that this survey was evidently a “survey of animal lovers.”
The study nevertheless highlighted the role of companion animals as potential social buffers for psychological distress and loneliness. The researchers observed that further targeted investigations relating to these important areas of human health are required.
ANIMAL INTERACTION & PHYSICAL HEALTH
Interestingly, the presence of aquariums in long-term care facilities has also been associated with physical health benefits. Another study by Dr. Nancy Edwards and a colleague assessed the influence of aquariums on the weight of individuals with dementia living in three care facilities. That study involved 70 residents in dementia units where aquariums were introduced into each common dining area.
Food intake was measured for all three meals at various points throughout the study, while body weight was measured at baseline and again after ten weeks. During the ten-week study period, participants’ food intake increased by 25% and average weight increased by 2.2 pounds per person. These findings were published in 2013 in Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders.
“This study showed that people with advanced dementia responded to aquariums in their environment,” said Dr. Edwards.
ATTRACTION TO THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT IS SO INNATE THAT IT SURVIVES DEMENTIA. SO, PET THERAPY IS A PROMISING INTERVENTION EVEN FOR PEOPLE WITH ADVANCED COGNITIVE DECLINE.
When it comes to animals’ impact on physical health, some of the strongest evidence collected to date is on the association between pet ownership and cardiovascular health. For example, dog ownership has been associated with decreased cardiovascular risk and a longer life. Studies have suggested links between dog ownership and lower blood pressure, better lipid profile, and diminished sympathetic responses to stress – all helpful for decreasing cardiovascular risk.
A review and meta-analysis conducted by Dr. Caroline Kramer and colleagues, published in October 2019 in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, a journal of the American Heart Association, looked at the association between dog ownership and mortality. After reviewing ten studies involving more than 3.8 million people, they found that compared to non-owners, those who owned dogs experienced a 24% reduction in risk of all-cause mortality (i.e. deaths from all possible causes).
When the researchers looked at studies of cardiovascular mortality specifically, dog ownership was associated with an even larger reduction of risk (31%). These findings suggest that dog owners live longer and have lower risk of cardiovascular death, in particular.
Animal lovers might be surprised to learn that research findings about the effects of human-animal interactions have been mixed, though, and the quality of the research conducted has varied widely from study to study, making it challenging to interpret the findings with confidence.
To help make sense of the collective body of research findings about animal interactions specifically with older adults, Dr. Nancy Gee and Dr. Megan Mueller conducted a review of 145 studies and shared their findings in 2019 in Anthrozoös. The studies examined the impact of pet ownership and animal-assisted interventions on many different variables, including cognition, physical health and exercise, and depression, loneliness, and social functioning, as well as anxiety, fear, agitation, and related behaviours.
Overall, the findings were stronger for studies that manipulated the presence of the animal (i.e. the intervention studies), while the pet ownership results tended to be mixed, with many studies showing positive effects on the variables, but others showing negative, mixed, or no effects.
In addition to reviewing the findings from those studies, Dr. Gee and Dr. Mueller also assessed the quality of the research methodology used for each study. Many different methodologies were used, and not all of the research was rigorous. Examples of methodological shortcomings included small sample size and lack of control groups for comparison.
“Many of the research results were promising, particularly for animal-assisted interventions, showing potential for animals to positively impact the health and well-being of older adults,” said Dr. Gee, a Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction in the School of Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Overall, the evidence indicates there is real potential for pet ownership to benefit older adults as well, but the evidence base is not as strong. More research needs to be done, particularly high-quality studies using robust methodology, so that we can flesh out the circumstances under which companion animals may be most beneficial.”
“The inconsistency in the research findings reflects the reality that the relationship between humans and animals is complex. Despite some inconsistency in the research to date, we know enough at this point to say that animals have the potential to improve our lives in many ways,” continued Dr. Gee.
ANIMAL-ASSISTED INTERVENTIONS, IN PARTICULAR, ARE BEING SCIENTIFICALLY TESTED AND THE EVIDENCE SEEMS TO INDICATE THAT THEY ARE EFFECTIVE IN HELPING INDIVIDUALS OF DIFFERENT AGES IN A WIDE VARIETY OF SETTINGS, INCLUDING IN SCHOOLS, LONG-TERM CARE HOMES, HOSPITALS, AND OTHER THERAPY SETTINGS.
Although animals have much to offer that can help humans, it is important to remember that animals are equal partners in an animal-human interaction and must be treated with care and respect. This might mean, for example, that animals are never left unsupervised with young children in a classroom or with individuals who have dementia. Humans have an important role to play in the mental and physical health of animals, too.
Source: Mind Over Matter V12
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