Arches. Photo by Daniel Chia
Oct
31
2013

Companion Animals and Health

When most people consider therapies, they often think of prescriptions and side effects. However, animal companion therapy is proving to be an effective means of improving well-being among patients. Many of the benefits of animal companion therapy can extend to patients and family members living with Huntington’s disease. This article highlights the physical effects caused by companion animals, as well as opportunities for taking advantage of this type of therapy.

The Physical Effect of Companion Animals^

Stress can have harmful effects on the body’s ability to cope with various health issues. Research consistently shows that exercise and meditation can help manage stress levels. More recently, the scientific community has begun to collect growing evidence that animal companions might have the same effect on the health of patients.

The presence of an animal alone can affect our emotions. Animals are often able to focus people’s attention in a way that is calming or de-arousing (Cirulli et al., p. 342). Since animals, especially dogs, respond with affection and generally pro-social behaviors, they can potentially serve as an “emotional bridge” within therapeutic contexts.

The physical health effects of a companion pet can range from everyday benefits to life-saving changes. Within the first few months of acquiring a pet, patients tend to have lowered risk for cardiovascular disease, increased chances of surviving myocardial infarctions, decreased need of physician services during stressful life events and a reduction in everyday minor health problems.

Many HD patients cite lack of familial support as a major problem. Companion animals could help mediate this gap as icebreakers, bridging people with the outside world and jumpstarting communication and social exchanges that can promote feelings of social integration. Research in nonhuman mammals suggests that oxytocin, a signaling molecule in the brain, helps to increase one’s feeling of reward during social interactions while also increasing bonding between individuals. Oxytocin also assists in responding to social stress for humans. In fact, interacting with a dog caused a significant increase in levels of oxytocin within the human, improving his or her ability to forge new social bonds.

Creating an animal companion relationship^

In the study, Animal-assisted Interventions as Innovative Tools for Mental Health, researchers state that dogs are the ideal animal companions. Over thousands of years of domestication, dogs have been “selected for characteristics that enhance their sensitivity to a wide range of human communicative signals, both visual and acoustic” (Cirulli, p. 341). Dogs develop complex communication systems with humans and are highly interactive. Additionally, dogs provide opportunities for physical, recreational, and social activities. They are easily trained to constructively work in different settings, which explain their use as Seeing Eye and rescue dogs.

HD patients who live in nursing homes are often under great duress, as institutionalization can result in a decreased quality of life and stress due to separation from loved ones. Dog-mediated interventions could improve communication and reduce loneliness and depression.

Furthermore, animal companions could also help children of families experiencing traumatic life occurrences. Animal companions have been shown to influence social, emotional, and cognitive development in children. Parents often report that an animal helps teach children about life events. Children who grow up with pets have an enhanced sense of empathy and responsibility, social status within the peer group, and higher self-esteem and self-confidence.

While the positive aspects of animal companionship seem numerous, there are studies that raise questions about the extent of this impact. Visiting dog programs do not consistently “improve mood, cognitive abilities or social interactions” (Cirulli, p. 344). This might indicate that perhaps longer-term, matched interaction is needed between animal and human to see any effects. In fact, saliva spits revealed that there is a time-dependent increase in behavioral results such as improvement in mood or social bonding, as measured by mood changes and cortisol levels. (Cortisol is a hormone often associated with stress. Long term interaction with animals has shown to decrease levels of this hormone, improving well-being.)

Adding Pets to the Home^

In summary, adopting a companion animal into a Huntington’s disease family or an institution housing HD patients might have marked effects on the well being of various participants. However, there are certain aspects to take into account when making the decision to add a family member to the home. To find more information about the logistics of adopting a pet, visit http://www.aspca.org/adopt/adoption-tips.

If you are concerned with integrating a pet into family experiencing health difficulties, please contact Pet Partners, an organization dedicated to “improving lives through positive human-animal interaction.” Visit their website at http://www.petpartners.org/.

For Further Reading:^

1. Cirulli, Francesca, Marta Borgi, Alessandra Berry, Nadia Francia, and Enrico Alleva. “Animal-assisted Interventions as Innovative Tools for Mental Health.” N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.
2. Bekoff, Marc, Ph.D. “Pets Are Good for Us: Where Science and Common Sense Meet.”Psychology Today. N.p., 23 July 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2013
3. Allen, Karen M., Jim Blascovich, Joe Tomaka, and Robert M. Kelsey. “Presence of Human Friends and Pet Dogs as Moderators of Autonomic Responses to Stress in Women.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 61.4 (1991): 582-89. Print.
4. Health Benefits of Animals. Pet Partners, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2013. .

K. Powers
10/31/2013