The Psychological Benefits of Human-Animal Interactions
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2003
Teoh Hsien-Jin, B.Soc.Sci.Hons (Keele), M.Psychol.Clinical Hons (UNSW), PhD (UWA)
Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Teoh Psychology Services
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Pets are very much part of our lives. They are our companions, friends and workmates. In performing these functions, they very much take on a role that is both therapeutic and positive for our mental health. This paper examines the psychological benefits of animal interactions. It examines the various roles that animals play, in term of the physical, emotional, social and cognitive effects on us. It also examine the differing roles that animals play as companions, first-aiders, and therapists, and finally looks at the positive effect that they have on child development, the elderly, and nursing homes. All in all, the subject places a lot of emphasis on the bond between animals and humans.

With rapid industrialization, humans are seeking ways to solve problems. Great technical feats are performed, along with scientific discoveries and the development of space travel. Despite all these changes, one thing that does not appear to have changed is the need for some people to have pets.

Many smile when the word "pets" is mentioned. The sorts of animals that are bred as pets today range from the domesticated, to the wild and to the exotic. When people talk about pets, certain values often come to mind. Amongst the more common reasons that are cited for having pets are: love with no strings attached, companionship, a substitute relative, a protector, a social asset, an exercise companion, and sometimes a reminder of a lost loved one.

Many consider their pets as a member of the family. In many cases, the pet is allowed to sleep with a family member, share tidbits from the meal table, share snacks with the owner, and some families also celebrate their pet's birthday. The pet is especially important to family members at all times. Many families find that having a pet enhances the family unit. Being part of the family, some pets become sensitive to the moods of other family members.

Having a pet generally brings many positive benefits to the pet owners. The positive effects encompass both mental and physical health. This phenomenon has been found not just with household pets, but also in a variety of other settings. These settings include the blind, the disabled, psychiatric institutions, the elderly, in prisons, and in war.

Positive Mental Health

Mental health differs from mental illness. Mental health describes the daily stressors and strains, and anxiety and fears that we face. On a day to day basis, pets provide us with a sense of calmness, help reduce anxiety, and provide an outlet for stress.

As companions and protectors, pets also help to reduce stress and anxiety, and promote a feeling of safety.

Having an aquarium promotes a sense of calm and peacefulness amongst many people. The calming effect that pets have on people can be observed physically. Petting familiar dogs and horses has been found to result in slower heart beats and deeper respiration. In daily life, pets help to reduce stress and anxiety in many ways.

The effect of having a pet also seems to create many positive qualities in pet owners. Pet owners, when compared with non-pet owners, had greater self confidence, more self-sufficient and independent and productive. Caring for a pet may also help to boost self-esteem.

Effects on Children

Throughout the ages, children have held a special place for their pets in their hearts. Their pets are their companions, confidantes and friends. Having a pet usually brings about positive reactions in children.

Most children report that they love their pets. They believe that their pets love them. Even abused children may benefit from interactions with pets. These children need physical contact and may often gradually respond to a pet, and often tell their pet about their difficulties.

The Blind

In some countries, dog assist blind people get around. These dogs, known as "Guide dogs", are the guiding eyes for people who are blind or visually impaired. These dogs function as working dogs, rather than pets. Guide dogs have to undergo a comprehensive training program. They are taught how to find and follow a clear path, maneuver around obstacles, and stop at curbs. They also are taught to determine when it is unsafe to proceed.


Another area in which animals are able to help people, is through their work with quadriplegics. Capuchin monkeys have been trained to assist quadriplegics with carrying out day to day tasks. They help to perform simple, every day tasks, such as getting something to eat or drink, retrieving dropped or out of reach items, assisting with audio cassettes, video cassettes, CDs, and books, and turning lights on or off-tasks. The monkeys are helpers who supplement the assistance of family members or paid attendants who bathe, dress, feed, and otherwise attend to their needs each day. They do not in any way replace the role of the primary care-givers.

Special Education

Some children appear to learn easier when the teaching is done in an applied manner as personality has a strong effect on learning. One way of doing this is to use animal as topics for teaching. A curriculum might involve learning all the academic subjects, around a theme of farm animals. Children learn about the basic needs of these animals. Through observation and experience, the students learn that people and animals have many needs in common. Thus, teachers are able to instruct the children on health, nutrition, and grooming, along with needs of association, communication, and appropriate behaviour.

Psychiatric Patients

The effects of having pets present has been found to generally produce a more positive effect on those who are depressed, suicidal and withdrawn. In addition, some settings have noted that even violent patients have calmed down with the presence of pets. Many mental problems may stabilise, but not improve when mentally ill people are placed in institutional settings. Psychiatric wards are normally sterile, and antiseptic. As animals are spontaneous and unpredictable, they provide a pleasant diversion.

So strong are bonds created between pet and owner that it is sometime are a matter of life and death. It is interesting to note that some suicidal patients would readily die and have no qualms about leaving family members and friends behind. Many say that no one will bother when they die. However, some researchers have noted that if there is a pet they care for, suicidal patients do tend to worry about who will look after their pet if they died.

The Elderly

When older people withdraw from active participation in daily human affairs, animals can play an important role in their emotional well-being. Many elderly have found that their pets satisfy some of their greatest needs. The presence of a dog has been found to create greater joy in living amongst the patients. There have been reports of more laughter, alertness, responsiveness, and increased incentive to live. In addition, in old folk's homes, relationships between staff and residents have improved. It would appear that the presence of the pet means that there is something that everyone can share, relate to, and talk about.

Prison Populations

There has been quite a lot of work done on the role of pets and prisoners in countries such as the United States of America. Results of these programmes indicate that the presence of pets in prisons does provide a soothing and therapeutic effect for inmates.

The Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, in the United States of America contained many male who showed signs of depression, mental illness and suicidal tendencies. To attempt to improve the inmate's mental state, 2 parakeets and an aquarium were placed in the day room. The research found that there was no breaking of the aquarium, and nobody tried to strangle the birds. As more animals were introduced into the facility, there was a marked reduction in fights and attempted suicides. They also noted that patients with pets needed less medication. Even argumentative and violent patients were reported to have resorted to talking to their pets, rather than let their tempers flare up. Having a pet brought instant responsibilities and companionship to the inmates.

War Dogs

Dogs have played a major role in supporting the troops during the First and Second World Wars, and subsequently in many armed conflicts. They have been effective as scouts to detect enemy positions, sentries to guard against enemy intruders, sniffers to detect mines, messengers sending information between command posts, weapons carriers, and also as aiders to help look for wounded soldiers. In the midst of the conflict, the dogs not only selflessly carried out their jobs, but also played the role of loyal companions to the men they served with.

War Torn Zones

In war, many civilians found comfort in their pets. During wars many pet owners reported that their pets comforted them, and that they also comforted their pets. Despite the war, all the pet owners continued to pay attention to their pets, and were genuinely concerned for the welfare of the pet. Many took some risk to provide for their pets, which included sharing their food supplies. In some cases, some even deprived themselves of food so their pets might eat.

To conclude, this short paper demonstrates the bond of attraction that humans have with their animal companions. What may perhaps have begun as a utilitarian role that the animals had, has eventually progressed into one of mutual affection and respect. With each passing day, our animal companions demonstrate over and over again that they too have a role to play in our lives, and that they have feelings.

Speaker Information
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Teoh Hsien-Jin, B.Soc.Sci.Hons (Keele), M.Psychol.Clinical Hons (U
Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Teoh Psychology Services
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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