A recent article in the Guardian newspaper (UK) by Dr Ranjana Srivastava comments on the importance of the human-animal connection for some of her patients. Dr. Srivastava conveys poignantly and concretely how pets influence our lives and can provide meaning and purpose. One of the cases illustrates the role of a pet to combat loneliness. That focus helps to illustrate a critical role that pets and contact with animals can play in health care. Loneliness goes well beyond the psychological pain that individuals experience. There are surprising physical health consequences that loneliness brings. Individuals who are lonely are at increased riskfor a compromised immune system,poor physical health, and an earlydeath. The increased risk of dying early from being lonely is about as great as it is from smoking cigarettes. If pets or contact with animals were valuable in “just” overcoming loneliness that alone could have enormous healthbenefits for individuals, families, and society at large.
In the United States, millions of children, adolescents, and adults experience significant mental health problems. As with loneliness, many of these problems are also associated with physical health problems. Approximately 25% of the US population (82 million people) met the criteria for a psychiatric disorder within the past 12 months. This rises to approximately 50% of the population over the course of a life time. Lamentably, approximately 70% of individuals in need of services will not receive any form of treatment or health carefor these problems. There are many forms of psychotherapy,many medications, and many professionals who can and do address mental health issuesso what is problem?
In relation to psychological services, the way in which treatment usually is provided is a major reason that most people in need will not receive mental health services. Typically, psychological treatment is provided in a clinic or treatment setting by a highly trained mental health professional and in one-to-one individual sessions. Treatments provided in this way can be effective but cannot reach most people in need. We need additional ways of providing care that are not only effective but that also can be extended to more than the elite few who receive treatment for their mental health problems.The systematic use of human-animal interaction can provide a viable option and for some individuals may be an acceptable or even more acceptable form of care and support. There is a large set of interventions referred to as animal-assisted therapies that are directed to a range of mental and physical health problems. Although drawing on animals in systematic ways to improve health is not a panacea,we ought to explore all interventions, both formal and informal, that can make a difference in improving lives.
We begin with three key questions – namely, what can we provide to improve mental and physical health that is supported by scientific evidence, that is acceptable to the public, and that can be scaled up to reach many people in need. Many current psychological treatments have evidence that they make a difference. However, members of the public are oftenreticent to draw on them in light of barriers (e.g., stigma, cost)or because there is no readily accessible service nearby. No one treatment can address all obstacles, and that is yet another reason why we need multiple ways of providing care and reaching people in need. However, in drawing on the possible benefits of human-animal interaction, we need to provide scientific evidence to identify:
- for what mental and physical problems can the human-animal interactionbeeffective;
- for whom can the human-animal interaction be effective;
- how do the treatments achieve change and how can we improve their effectiveness; and
- how do companion animals (or even wild animals and the natural environment) improve life in general, whether or not there is a specific treatment goal or mental and physical problem that needs to be addressed.
Arguably,the importance of human-animal relationships and the quality of life to which those relationships contributeis an underemphasized focus in health care, perhaps now more than ever with many people living longer and managing chronic conditions that cannot be effectively treated. In the healthcare professions, we recognize that that the absence of mental and physical symptoms and disease by itself does not give one’s life quality, purpose, or meaning. Relationships, however,add meaning to life and human-animal relationships are a central part of that. Dr. Srivastava’s comments make this point extremely well and with implications that we ought to be sensitive to this critical facet in patient care. I support her suggestions to consider the systematic use of human-animal relations more broadly so that we may add to the armamentarium of interventions that have been demonstrated to improve mental and physical health.