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Can animals have an impact on our wellbeing?

17 July 2017

Profile photo of Fiona BrownFiona Brown

It seems that in adult social care there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to support the theory that animals are ‘good for our health and wellbeing’. But is this grounded in reality?

I have seen a great deal of examples of practice in this area – using animals to provide support and companionship for children with autism, older people with dementia, or people experiencing crisis. However, there is limited research to back up the many claims of the positive impacts that an animal can have on a person’s wellbeing.

What research there is suggests that having a pet around can help to lower blood pressure (American Heart Association). Likewise, evidence suggests that dogs can not only make us calmer, but also happier (The Guardian). Studies, including Zasloff & Kidd (1994), show that people living alone have reported feeling significantly lonelier than those living with animals have.

In the adult social care team in which I work in Camden, I have heard many examples from colleagues of the life-changing impact that a pet has had on the life of a person who often may be experiencing crises or who may be socially isolated or depressed.

I myself have worked with an 80-year-old man who, after a long spell in hospital was motivated to participate in rehabilitation therapy in hospital in order to expedite his return home so that he could be reunited with his two pet dogs. Indeed, research suggests that older adult dog owners may be more than twice as likely to maintain their mobility as people who do not own dogs (Thorpe et al 2006, cited in Hall et al).

Recently, a colleague at Camden told me of an elderly man with whom she worked in a strengths-based way, whose only goal that he identified on his support plan was to own a dog, and therefore her work with this man was based around this goal. As part of our strengths-based approach, practitioners are encouraged to look to the community for support. If animals do have a part to play in supporting adults, this might mean identifying ventures that can support people’s relationship with animals, and also emphasising the importance of a pet in the assessment and support plan of those people for whom animals play or have played an important part in their lives.

Interestingly, in 1995 the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organisations called on governments to recognise the value of the human-animal bond and amend legislature to allow pets in care facilities. This position was also supported by the World Health Organisation (Community Care). However, research by the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) indicates that still only 29% of care homes allow animals. Those that do allow animals do not normally include dogs and cats within this. However, the Royal College of Nursing are now calling for hospitals to let more dogs and other animals onto wards and operating theatres after collecting many anecdotes about animals helping to support people who are anxious about having surgery, and helping with recovery (BBC, 2017).

There is also a work in progress at the moment looking into the effects of animals on the health and wellbeing of residents in care homes (led by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) South West Peninsula). Their background information states that:

‘Animals are also believed to be therapeutic and pet therapy or animal assisted therapy is one of the treatments recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) guidance for people with all types and severities of dementia experiencing agitation.’ 

This systematic review will consider both quantitative and qualitative evidence to find out what interventions are being used, which of these are particularly appropriate for different groups of residents, and what the impacts are of animals on physical and mental health, social wellbeing and quality of life of older people living in residential or nursing care. It is hoped that it will contribute to the evidence base in this area.

If we think about it, this is an area for exploration that could have potentially huge economic benefits to social care and the NHS. The Companion Animal Economics (2016) has carried out research which suggests that potential savings of £126.45 billion could be made to healthcare in the UK through animal companionship. These savings are calculated by considering a range of factors and situations where animal companionship could be perceived to positively impact, including: aiding recovery from major illness; prevention of ill-health; physical wellbeing; social wellbeing; mental wellbeing; and fewer visits to the doctor.

There are also lessons for social workers working with people who may lack capacity around their care where a best interests decision is needed. In the case of Essex County Council v RF & Ors, where the court heard how a 91-year-old man had been deprived of his liberty illegally, the judge highlighted the importance of the man’s relationship with his pet cat. Likewise, it was also highlighted in the judgement in the case of Mrs P (by her litigation friend, the Official Solicitor) v Rochdale BC, the importance of pets to people who lack mental capacity and the need to consider this when making best interests decisions.

The Care Act 2014 encourages us all to focus on a person’s wellbeing, encompassing all of the things that may fall within this category for a person. As some of the above examples demonstrate, an animal may have a huge positive impact on a person’s life, and we should be exploring the potential for this across adult social care. But we also need to think about how we gather and record evidence to demonstrate whether animals can indeed play an important part in supporting people’s wellbeing.


About the author

Fiona Brown is a registered social worker currently employed as a team manager in a community adult social care team in the London Borough of Camden.


Related resources

Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-40346539

The Care Act 2014

http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2009/01/19/the-value-of-animals-in-care-homes/

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/dec/30/animal-assisted-therapy-nih-veterinary-science-mental-health-american-heart-association

Essex County Council v RF & Ors (Deprivation of Liberty and damage) [2015] EWCOP 1; Mrs P (by her litigation friend, the Official Solicitor) v Rochdale BC (1) NHS North, Central and South Manchester CCG (2) [2016] EWCOP B1 https://www.ripfa.org.uk/resources/case-law-summaries/


References

Hall S, Dolling L, Bristow K, Fuller T and Mills D (2017) Companion Animal Economics: The Economic Impact of Companion Animals in the UK: Research Report. Oxford: CABI.

Thorpe RJ, Simonsick EM, Brach JS, Ayonayon H, Satterfield S, Harris TB, Garcia M and Kritchevsky SB (2006) ‘Dog Ownership, Walking Behaviour, and Maintained Mobility in Late Life’. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 54 (9) 1419-1424.

Zasloff, RL and Kidd AH (1994) ‘Loneliness and pet ownership among single women’. Psychological Reports 75 747-752.

Bethel A, Thompson-Coon J, Whear R, Abbott R, Garside R and Orr N (2017) Effects of animals on the health and wellbeing of residents in care homes. More information: http://clahrc-peninsula.nihr.ac.uk/research/effects-of-animals-on-the-health-and-wellbeing-of-residents-in-care-homes

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