I haven’t written for a while, in large part because my 20 year old cat Willow passed away just over a month ago, and was ill for a short time beforehand. This was tough as she was truly a part of my family; her and I had been together for that full 20 years. Immediately after I found myself craving furry companionship. Even the next day, I found myself looking longingly at the dogs in the park, wishing that I was the type of person to go ask people if I could pet their dog. Within just a couple weeks, we adopted two new cats from the Edmonton Humane Society via Paws the Cat Café. These two new cats, who are still somewhat undecided on whether they wish to change their names, will never replace Willow and I don’t want them to. But they do help to fill the furry space that was left in our home when Willow passed.
Around the same time that this was happening I was looking into animal assisted interventions at work. A growing number of organizations such as post-secondary, seniors residences, hospitals and other care facilities, and organizations that work with special populations such as individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder are including animal assisted interventions into their repertoire. I’m a huge fan of this idea in principle, but I’m also curious about the research as to its effects and effectiveness.
Beetz, Uvnas-Moberg, Julius, and Kotrschal (2012) reviewed several different studies on human-animal interactions finding that spending time with animals reduced depression symptoms, increased empathy, decreased aggression, decreased cortisol (a stress hormone), reduced heart rates and blood pressure, and improved interpersonal interactions.
However, in order to ensure that these types of interventions are available to those who would benefit (obviously someone who is afraid of dogs would not likely benefit from an intervention program where they were exposed to dogs; however, many other species may also be used in animal assisted interventions) advocates of the field are calling for a stronger evidence-base.
One of the main components that is missing is controlled studies. In order to truly evaluate whether the animal assisted intervention is causing the change in status in the human we need to subject humans to the same conditions but without the animal. For example, in a post-secondary environment that has drop-in times to spend with animals, you need to identify all of the potential variables. For example, an individual who spends 20 minutes playing with a dog needs to be compared with an individual who spends 20 minutes not playing with the dog, but also not studying, or using social media, or thinking about the assignments they have to work on, all the things that the person who is playing with the dog is also not doing. This need for controlled studies is one of four recommendations made by Kazdin (2017) in order to improve the evidence base of animal-assisted interventions.
Kazdin’s other recommendations are to explicitly state the hypotheses about why and how interactions with animals changes health and well-being. For example, Beetz et al (2012) propose that spending time with the animals increases the production of oxytocin (a hormone responsible for empathy and generosity). Similarly, what part of the interaction affects the change – is it just looking at the animal, having the animal look at you, how the animal responds to the participant (would it be as therapeutic if the animal walks away every time you try to pet it?), etc.
Another recommendation is to separate the therapeutic interventions from the laboratory studies (at least for some of the studies) (Kazdin). So rather than only working with populations who need the therapeutic response engage with all types of participants to discover how exactly the interventions work. In other words, use laboratory studies and controlled studies to test the hypotheses about why the animal interventions have the effect they have.
Finally, research into animal assisted intervention comes from a wide range of fields. This is excellent because the diversity has the potential to build a much more complete picture of how the interventions work. But it also poses challenges because there is no one way to carry out these studies. While we need to take this bigger perspective, there needs to be more clarity on appropriate research methods so as to make claims of causation rather than correlation (e.g., did spending 20 minutes playing with the dog cause my blood pressure to decrease, or was it simply related to the decrease?).
I’m a fan of animal assisted intervention, but I’m also fearful that without stronger evidence individuals who could benefit greatly from the intervention will miss out because funding sources are waiting for “hard evidence” of its effectiveness.
Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 234.
Alan E. Kazdin (2017) Strategies to improve the evidence base of animal-assisted interventions, Applied Developmental Science, 21:2, 150-164, DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2016.1191952