Pets, animal-assisted therapy and social inclusion

Date09 April 2018
Published date09 April 2018
AuthorSue Holttum
Subject MatterHealth & social care,Mental health,Social inclusion
Pets, animal-assisted therapy and social
Sue Holttum
Purpose Humans have close relationships with animals for companionship and in working roles.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss recent papers on pets and dog-assisted interventions, and relates
their findings to social inclusion.
Design/methodology/approach A search was carried out for recent papers on pets, animal-assisted
therapy and social inclusion/exclusion.
Findings One paper discusses theories (often lacking in studies of animal-assisted therapy) of why animals
may be good for human health and development. A recent review shows evidence that family pet ownership may
aid childrens well-being, learning and social development, but too few studies have followed children over time in
pet and non-pet households. Studies of dog-assisted interventions show stress-reduction, which in turn may
explain why therapy for mental health in young people and adults was more effective with a dog than without.
Social inclusion is hinted at but not measured directly, yet dog-assisted therapy might be helpful in this regard.
Originality/value All the papers discussed in detail here represent up-to-date understanding in this area of
knowledge. Benefits of human-animal bonds, especially with dogs,appear to be well-supported by biological
as well as observational and self-report evidence. More research is needed on how much these attachments
may assist social relating and relationships with other people, and social inclusion.
Keywords Social inclusion, Attachment, Theories, Dog-assisted therapy, Pet owning
Paper type Viewpoint
The long relationship between domesticated animals and humans
Humans have kept domestic animals for thousands of years. Pet animals, especially dogs, can
be part of the social life of a household. This has led some people to wonder whether pets bring
benefits for childrens development, including social development. Social development is crucial
for social inclusion. Without the ability to make positive relationships with others, children can
develop mental health difficulties (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2012).
Also, in recent decades therapy that incorporates animals (animal-assisted therapy), has grown in
popularity (Serpell et al., 2017). Animal-assisted interventions include supporting children stressed by
a visit to the dentist or having an injection, visiting older people with dementia in residential care homes
to boost their mood, and helping children, young people or adults as part of treatment for mental
health difficulties (Lundqvist et al., 2017). However, Serpell et al. (2017) suggest that many studies of
animal-assisted therapy do not appear to be based on a clear theory of how or why animals might be
therapeutic. This is important because if therapists know how animals help, they can make therapy
more effective and they are more likely to measure the right things to test how helpful it is.
Why might animals be helpful?
Serpell et al. (2017) discuss five possible theories of why animals can be therapeutic:
1. helping people build social relationships with others;
2. the attachment bond with an animal is directly supportive;
Sue Holttum is a Senior Lecturer
at the Salomons Centre for
Applied Psychology, Canterbury
Christ Church University,
Tunbridge Wells, UK.
DOI 10.1108/MHSI-02-2018-0004 VOL. 22 NO. 2 2018, pp. 65-71, © Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 2042-8308
PAG E 65

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