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Dogs help ward of thoughts of suicide and in times of severe depression, says research

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Posted on December 28, 2016: Imagine a day when everything has gone wrong. On returning home, you are close to tears. You don’t live completely alone though, an adorable dog lives with you. He comes up to you, offers a shoulder to cry on, nuzzles you with his furry face, keeps his paws on you and licks your tears dry. Your mood magically brightens.

Therapeutic touch

For a great part of human history, animals have provided comfort and solace to human beings. In the late 18th century, in England, philanthropist William Tuke, used animals for therapy for those with psychiatric disorders. In 1860, Florence Nightingale suggested that birds be used to assist the healing of the chronically ill. In 1867, in Germany; dogs, cats, horses and birds were used for therapy for disabled people. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud often kept his favourite dog in the room during psychotherapy sessions. In 1919, US soldiers with psychological problems were treated by companion dogs. In 1964, Dr. Boris Levinson, an American child psychiatrist, accidentally discovered that his dog could soothe a disturbed child. He named this treatment as ‘pet therapy’ which was later renamed as Animal Assisted Therapy.

The online medical dictionary describes Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) as, 'the purposeful use of animals to provide affection, attention, diversion and relaxation’. 

AAT improves one’s emotional, social and cognitive functioning. Therapy animals are used in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric institutes, prisons, old age homes etc. The most often used therapy animal is the dog. Other therapy animals include horses, dolphins, cats, rabbits, fishes, birds, small pigs, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, alpacas, llamas etc.

New study

Latest research further drives in the point that pets are indeed a boon to mental health. In fact, the latest finding is that getting a dog may simply save your life. Living with human’s best friend, makes you feel less sad and lonely, thereby quietening suicidal thoughts. The BMC Psychiatry journal of late established this correlation between having an animal companion and incidences of suicide. We have known for a long time that dogs better the heart health of a person.

Helen Brooks, a researcher with a doctorate degree, hailing from the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom, conducted an interview of 54 adults who were being treated for mental illnesses. The interviewees were asked to rank the living beings and things in their lives in order of importance. They were to categorise how important these beings and things were: low, middle or high. They were to rank how vital pets, friends, family, doctors and hobbies were to their lives. Three-fifths of the interviewees said that their animal friends were very important in their lives. One-fifths of the interviewees said that animal companions were moderately important to their lives. They claimed that being around their favourite animals kept at bay, various symptoms of mental illnesses including hearing voices and suicidal intentions.

The conclusion of the research was that companion animals should play a vital role in the treatment of those with mental illnesses. Those interviewed in this survey had a companion animal which played a crucial role in their lives. As Brooks is the pet parent of two dogs, she could identify with the reasons that the interviewees put forth regarding the bond they shared with companion animals and better mental health. She was taken aback though at the intensity to which the companion animals helped them.


Minal Kavishwar, Founder-President of Animal Angels Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that provides AAT services says, “The underlying principle behind AAT is that animals are non-judgmental. While communicating with a human being, a person generally puts on a persona. However, while interacting with an animal, one doesn’t have the fear of being judged, which in turn enables one to relax.”

Relieves stress

Another way of de-stressing is by petting animals. Minal elaborates, “On the physiological level, petting the soft fur of an animal, releases the happy hormone oxytocin and normalises blood pressure.” AAT has brought about a marked change in those with depression, mood disorders and post traumatic stress disorder. Cuddling and interacting with therapy animals releases endorphins which are natural pain killers.

For those with special needs

For those with physical and mental disabilities, AAT has numerous benefits. Minal explains how therapists combine physical and mental therapy for them, “They are asked to do tasks like talking to the therapy dog, holding the leash, grooming the dog etc. This, in turn, betters motor skills, eye-hand coordination, improves attention span and the ability to connect to other living beings.”

For senior citizens

Therapy animals can open a new horizon in the life of a senior citizen, especially if loneliness is rampant in their lives. They reduce levels of anxiety and mellow the gnawing sense of loneliness. Grooming and feeding a pet helps to better the seniors’ physical expertise. Senior citizens with cardiac problems, who have pets, have been statistically documented to live longer than those in their age who aren’t pet parents. Therapy dogs can simmer agitation and better social interaction in dementia patients.

For more information on Animal Angels, visit their website here or contact Minal on 9987509102.



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