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Heal Thy Self | Paws and effect… how a pet can boost your mental health

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Heal Thy Self | Paws and effect… how a pet can boost your mental health Photo:Getty Images

There is a little-known legacy handed down by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud had a household full of dogs, his favourite being a chow-chow named Jo-Fi. Originally, Jo-Fi was brought into the consulting-room as a comfort to Freud himself, who claimed he was more relaxed when the dog was nearby. But then he soon began to notice that the presence of the dog seemed to help clients during their therapy sessions as well. He began speculating as to the cause. During psychoanalysis, the client is asked to “free associate”, that is, to simply say whatever comes into his mind. To facilitate this process, he is asked to stretch out on a couch and relax. The therapist sits behind the person, out of his line of sight. This keeps the client from watching the facial expressions of the therapist which might be interpreted as disapproval or some other emotion. The idea is to let the client freely follow his own patterns of association while he works his way towards uncovering the source of his problem, rather than taking any indirect guidance from the therapist’s responses. Now, although the therapist (Freud, in this case) is out of sight, Jo-Fi the dog is quite clearly in view, lying quietly nearby. Nothing seems to shock the therapist’s shaggy companion. Even when the client describes very painful or embarrassing moments, or begins to cry, the dog does not react, except perhaps with a calm glance in the client’s direction. Freud concluded that this gave the client a sense of safety and acceptance, the reassurance that anything could be expressed in this place. He recorded this information in his notes and it would eventually encourage the systematic use of dogs in therapy, though in India this is still in the nascent stage.

Therapy going to the dogs?

Heal Thy Self | Paws and effect… how a pet can boost your mental health

What explains this well-documented ability of dogs – and other animals -- to facilitate the therapy process? One suggestion is that, by being sufficiently similar to humans to prompt positive feelings and social interaction with them, and at the same time being sufficiently dissimilar to avoid posing a threat (animals do not criticize, or judge or jump to conclusions), animals may possess a unique capacity to mediate interactions in otherwise difficult or awkward therapy situations.

Today, as animals prove their worth as co-therapists in mental disorders as divergent as anger management and autism, it is the terms “therapy animals” and Animal-Assisted Therapy” (AAT) that are being used as umbrella labels. Successes have been reported in a truly wide range of maladies, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, dementias like Alzheimer’s, low self-esteem, anger management, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Down’s syndrome.

All creatures great And small

Heal Thy Self | Paws and effect… how a pet can boost your mental health

Although the most common animal used is the dog, followed by the cat, many other kinds of animals have also been used, mostly small animals like rabbits, parrots and fish, and the so-called “pocket pets” (e.g., hamsters, geckos); however, some large animals have also been employed (mostly horses), as well as some less accessible species (e.g., elephants, dolphins).

Many of the reports on Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) are anecdotal in nature; also, several of the purportedly scientific studies that have been carried out have not been adequately rigorous in design. Despite these limitations, we now have an ample body of research that validates the potential of AAT as a new-age therapy. Here’s a look at a sampling of the evidence:

Anxiety and stress. This is perhaps the area in which animals are most frequently used, with remarkable results. The evidence here is not just anecdotal; we have some very sound studies that meet what some scientists consider as the gold standard for research, that is, physiological evidence. Thus, one study measured physiological reactions (breathing and heartbeat rates, and muscle tension, among other parameters) to show that when a person interacted with, or was simply in the presence of a dog, he show reduced muscle tension, more regular breathing and a slower heart rate. All these indicate a lowering of sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity, and since it is the SNS that responds to stress, the findings suggest that the dog was clearly reducing the stress levels of people in its presence.

Heal Thy Self | Paws and effect… how a pet can boost your mental health

Even normally calm people who are facing stressful situations are getting help these days from animals. Research in the U.S. has found therapy dogs effective in easing the anxiety of people waiting to have an MRI. Those who had spent time with a therapy dog were calmer during the MRI than those who hadn’t. And, of course, there were none of the side-effects that often accompany the use of anti-anxiety medication.

But a pet doesn’t have to be a dog or a cat to induce these calming effects. Studies have found that even watching fish in a home aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and pulse rate. These findings seem to suggest that observing animals in a tranquil environment has a sedating effect on our own behaviour.

Depression. In the case of major depression, a playful puppy or wise-mouthed parrot is no substitute for medication or talk therapy. But researchers have found that pets can ease the symptoms of mild to moderate depression in many people.

Heal Thy Self | Paws and effect… how a pet can boost your mental health

One study published in the British Medical Journal), which studied people with mild to moderate depression, found that those who had 10 one-hour sessions of playing, swimming with and caring for dolphins had greater reductions in their depression symptoms than those who spent similar recreational time in the water without the dolphins. However, dolphin therapy is not practical for most people. Also, holding a non-domesticated mammal captive to serve people is often controversial.

Dogs, on the other hand, are a much more convenient option, thanks to being portable and easily trained. One Israeli study looked at the effects of dog therapy in people with schizophrenia who were suffering from an inability to enjoy normally pleasurable activities, a symptom common in depression. During weekly sessions, participants could choose from a range of activities such as petting, feeding, bathing, or walking a dog. After 10 sessions, they had formed a bond with and looked forward to seeing the dog, and had also improved their personal appearance in anticipation of the sessions. A control group who had therapy sessions without the dog did not show the same improvements.

How do pets have this anti-depressant effect? Most simply, in the way that they offer a source of pleasure, connection to the outside world, and of course, that unconditional love. One researcher puts it more evocatively. Pets, she says, hold out “the promise of hope and a reason to live”. Hope is a state of mind that allows people to reach deep inside to persevere. In the case of the human-animal bond, some people may find hope in unusual places, such as a puppy’s big brown eyes!

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops as a result of a traumatic experience and involves symptoms of vigilance (being extra alert and aware of surroundings); numbness (having difficulty feeling emotions); re-experiencing (flashbacks and nightmares); and social withdrawal. War veterans commonly experience PTSD; so do survivors and even crisis-responders to major terrorist attacks; so do victims of rape or calamitous natural disasters like the tsunami of 2004.

Heal Thy Self | Paws and effect… how a pet can boost your mental health

We do have counselling therapies as well as medications that help to quell the symptoms of PTSD. Unfortunately, symptoms tend to flare up again: there is no cure. But in recent years we’ve been hearing a new theme: Dogs. Scientists in different countries have confirmed that a wagging tail might help PTSD more than a pharmaceutical. There are scientific studies (though limited in number) that support the positive effects of dogs paired with veterans diagnosed with PTSD, and there are literally thousands of real-life, anecdotal instances. In each instance, medical professionals witnessed dramatic changes among PTSD veterans paired with dogs, including fewer medications (sometimes elimination of drugs altogether) and an improved quality of life, including fewer flashbacks and nightmares.

Some reasons suggested for why dogs are increasingly becoming part of a PTSD prescription:

Dogs are vigilant.  Anyone who has ever had a nightmare knows that a dog in the room provides information.  He promptly lets you know if you are really in immediate danger or if you have just had a bad dream. So you can relax your own hyper-vigilance searching for data in the environment because you know your dog is doing it for you.

Dogs just wanna have fun. One hallmark of PTSD is avoidance (of going outdoors and socializing with others). That’s sort of hard to do with a fetch-obsessed retriever who just wants to go out and play.

Dogs help PTSD victims to re-learn trust.  Trust is a big issue in PTSD.  It can be very difficult to feel safe in the world after certain experiences, and being able to trust the immediate environment can take some time.  Dogs help heal by being trustworthy. 

Anger management and impulse control disorders. A small, exploratory study that investigated the effect of including dogs in anger management therapy with adolescents involved the children in activities with a dog named Tucker – such as teaching him tricks and taking him on walks. The researchers found that Tucker appeared to generate a calming effect in difficult moments, and his presence provided humour in an otherwise serious situation.

Heal Thy Self | Paws and effect… how a pet can boost your mental health

Cats and parrots are also being incorporated into therapy for people who tend to act out because of aggression or impulse control issues (e.g., fire-starting, hair-pulling or compulsive stealing). Researchers have found that the animal will stay near a person with an impulse control problem until the person’s behaviour starts upsetting the animal, at which point the animal will move away. The therapist can then point out the effect that the person’s behaviour had on the animal. People seem to be able to work through aggression issues more effectively with this kind of feedback, research has found.

Larger animals like horses also help with aggression problems. Studies with teenagers trained to groom and feed horses as part of the therapy process have found that one of the things they learn is to regulate their emotions so they don’t “spook” the horse.

Emotional disorders in children. In the 1960s, the well-known child psychologist, Boris Levinson (who coined the term pet therapy), working with a disturbed child, found by chance that when he had his dog Jingles with him, the therapy sessions were much more productive. Then he noted that, in sessions with other children, too, those who were withdrawn and uncommunicative seemed more at ease and actually made real attempts at conversation when the dog was present. Levinson put together data from several such cases and this formed the basis of a presentation he made at a meeting of the American Psychological Association. The reception that his talk received was not positive, and the tone in the room did not do credit to the psychological profession. Levinson was distressed to find that many of his colleagues treated his work as a laughing matter. One even asked him what percentage of his therapy fees he paid to the dog.

Heal Thy Self | Paws and effect… how a pet can boost your mental health

Today, the laughter has stopped. Serious work has found that animals can be invaluable aides in improving communication in children with pervasive developmental disorders (PDD). This refers to a group of conditions (including autism, Asperger’s syndrome and Rett’s syndrome), marked by delays in the development of many skills, notably the ability to socialize, to communicate and to use imagination. Children with these conditions are confused in their thinking and generally have problems understanding the world around them.

Traditional therapies have not been particularly helpful with these disorders.  For this reason, animal-assisted therapy has been gaining momentum in this field.  In therapy with PDD-affected children, the animal actually acts as a transitional medium, with the children moving between bonds with the animal to bonds with people. In one study, each child was exposed, in rotating sessions, to a ball, a stuffed dog and a variety of live dogs. The researchers noted that there was a definite difference in the children’s response to the live dog, including more laughing, increased eye contact, communication with the dog, and a desire to connect through feeding the dog treats. They also noted that the children remained on-topic for longer periods of time while engaged with the dog, and were generally more compliant with therapist requests. In other words, there was an increase in more meaningful, more focused discussions. 

Magic Or medicine?

Heal Thy Self | Paws and effect… how a pet can boost your mental health

What explains all these marvellous, apparently miraculous, healing effects that animals seem to achieve with humans? Various explanations have been suggested, of which at least two have stood the test of time. According to the first, animals are able to induce an immediate, physiologically de-arousing state of relaxation simply by attracting and holding our attention. According to the second, companion animals are capable of providing people with a form of stress-buffering social support.

Health practitioners know that there is more to recovery than just dispensing prescriptions and employing standard therapies. Even more: human health depends not only on such factors as genetics, diet and exercise, but also to a large extent on the social and emotional health of the person. In essence, healthier people receive and give love to others. Equally revealing is the burgeoning scientific literature that suggests that the friendships do not have to be human, but could be with other species, too.

This is particularly important as upheavals in today’s world have resulted in a growing number of people living alone, whether due to divorce, choosing to remain childless, surviving a partner, or having a far-flung extended family. As Levinson says, "In this very busy twenty-first century, man is a lonely creature.” We humans are an extremely social species with a need to nurture. No matter how vastly technology transforms our lives, what endures is our timeless requirement as humans to love and be loved – and to need and be needed. If we cannot adequately get the social support we need from other people, we can still get it from ‘man’s best friend’ and other animals.

Apart from the loving companionship that they themselves provide, pets can also gently nudge us into increased social contact with people. It’s highly likely that you’ll begin to chat up others while walking your dog at the park or waiting at the vet’s.

But, a note of caution. While pets are proving to be invaluable therapy aides, they cannot be stand-alone therapists where a serious problem like major depression or schizophrenia is concerned. They can only be an adjunct – though an invaluable adjunct – to therapy.

On the other hand, you don’t need to get your pet therapy from a psychiatrist or a counsellor if you don’t have a serious emotional or behavioural disorder. Mild to moderate depression, stress and / or anxiety, can all be helped by keeping and nurturing a pet and receiving nurturance in turn.

Even if you do not need healing at the present time, a pet animal may still have a vital contribution to make to your life. For, when you come right down to it, animals show us wherein happiness lies. As Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen write in Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul, “Pets draw us out of ourselves and bring out the kindest impulses of humanity. They connect us to nature and the rest of the animal kingdom, making us more conscious of the mysteries of creation inherent in all things. Because of our pets, a deeper part of ourselves is unlocked, a part more compassionate, less arrogant, not as hurried; a part of us that is more willing to share our lives fully with other beings. When that happens, we know a truer, fuller, simpler meaning of happiness.”

If keeping a pet at home is not for you, there is another way that you can keep animals in your life. Animal-assisted therapy has made slow progress in India, but there are a few organizations that are working in this area, and all of them apparently welcome volunteers. Another option is to volunteer some of your time at a pet care centre or animal shelter. Before you know it, you’ll find that it’s you who have been adopted and co-opted by a pair of warm eyes and a cold nose.

(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)

The opinions expressed here do not reflect those of Malayala Manorama. Legal action under the IT Act will be taken against those making derogatory and obscene statements.

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