The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us, more so than ever before, to seek healthy and accessible coping strategies. For many people, animal companions have helped fill this role; hence the record-level adoption rates of dogs during the pandemic. While animal companions such as dogs, cats, and even horses have been kept close to the home for centuries, an ever-increasing body of research has supported the role of animals in promoting emotional health in humans.
Human-animal interaction (HAI) can be understood as “any situation where there is an interchange between human(s) and animal(s) at an individual or cultural level.” When we think of HAI, we typically think of our relationships with our pets. These relationships are often mutually beneficial to both humans and animals: animals receive food, water, shelter, and safety; humans receive the emotional support provided by their companion animal. However, research has found these benefits to be even stronger than immediately apparent. Companion animals reduce their owners’ risk of heart disease and have been found to improve recovery rates for those who have previously suffered from a heart attack. Petting animals increases the amount of beneficial hormones that people produce, such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, and reduces the production of stress hormones such as cortisol. Additionally, animals can help reduce the negative psychological symptoms of dementia.
Considering the well-documented positive impacts of HAI, integrating it into the therapeutic setting is a natural conclusion. Animal-assisted interventions (AAI) are the use of animals in any therapeutic setting, which may include informal activities with animals, or may involve individualized and structured interventions involving support from an animal. Animals provide a unique therapeutic benefit beyond what can be accomplished exclusively through traditional interventions.
While AAI has wide-reaching benefits, the impact is particularly well noted when working with those who have experienced trauma. Individuals who have experienced trauma may not feel comfortable physically touching or becoming emotionally close to others, which can prolong or exacerbate feelings of isolation or loneliness. When someone has trouble trusting people, animals can provide a safe alternative and springboard for building trusting relationships. Animals provide a nonjudgmental presence, stable companionship, and a safe haven for physical touch through petting and cuddling. HAI with a trusted animal helps people to experience the comfort of physical and emotional safety that comes only from companionship. Through this sense of safety and well-being, people working to overcome trauma can feel supported in re-engaging with their social environment and strengthening their self-regulation skills.
If you would like to learn more about Human-animal interactions, animal-assisted interventions, and their role in promoting resilience and healing for those who have experienced trauma, you can find a free online copy of the book Transforming Trauma: Resilience and Healing Through Our Connections With Animals at the following link: