Animal magic: benefits for health and wellbeing

Bupa Health Editor Natalie Heaton
Health and Lifestyle Editor at Bupa UK
23 January 2020
Next review due January 2023

Latest figures confirm what we probably already knew – that we’re a nation of animal lovers, with half of the UK’s adult population owning a pet. The most popular pets in the UK are our feline friends and canine companions. 24 per cent of UK adults own a cat and 26 per cent own a dog. That’s almost 11 million cats and 10 million dogs.

Being around animals can boost your wellbeing, and there’s even an emerging type of therapy based on spending time with animals.

Studies show that stroking an animal can help lower your blood pressure and being near them can help lower anxiety and stress levels. If you’ve got a cat or a dog for example, you’ll know about the benefits having a pet can bring. They can make you laugh, bring you joy, make you exercise (if you’re a dog owner) and soothe you too.

“My cat makes me laugh daily with his antics. It’s also lovely when he’s curled up on my lap fast asleep and purring – it’s very calming.”

But it’s not just pets that can bring joy and wellbeing to people. Have you ever heard of animal-assisted intervention?

What does animal-assisted intervention (AAI) mean?

Animals can help people in lots of ways. Animal-assisted intervention builds upon the pre-existing bond between animals and humans, with the aim of improving people’s health and wellbeing. For example, it can be an approach to help someone recover or cope with a health condition or problem. It’s currently used in care homes, among other settings. The animal’s wellbeing – ensuring that they’re well cared for and happy to be involved – is very important.

Animal-assisted interventions work on several levels.

  • Animal-assisted therapy: As well as spending time with the animals, a person might be involved with petting, brushing, grooming and caring for an animal. Therapy can include a variety of experiences and goals and might be done within a group or individually. This type of intervention involves healthcare professionals and trained animal handlers.
  • Animal-assisted play therapy: This is where ‘play’ is the focus of the intervention to improve the person’s health through self-expression, developing relationships and problem solving.
  • Animal-assisted activity: This is the most common type of intervention, where a handler brings in an animal for general interaction with people. For example, a dog coming in to a school or a care home.

Joanne Brooks, Activities Co-ordinator at Bupa’s Shockerwick House Care Home says: “We have a Pets-As-Therapy dog called Bella, a golden retriever, who comes in once a month. She visits residents in their rooms if they can’t get down to the group activities. She’s formed a special bond with them, and our residents look forward to her visits.”

What animals are used in AAI?

A whole range of animals can be used in animal-assisted interventions. Studies have been done featuring dogs, cats, dolphins, birds, cows, horses, rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, and even llamas.

Joanne says they’ve had some interesting creatures come to visit: “We’ve had some great visits from organisations who have brought in some smaller animals for our residents to get to know. We’ve had a corn snake, tarantula, owls, mice and millipedes to name a few!

“Smaller animals are great because it means people can hold them and residents of all capabilities and mobility can be involved. It’s great learning about the animals too – it gets everyone chatting.

“We’ve also had a visit from some alpacas – they were brilliant and really intelligent. They even went up in the lift to do some room visits for those who couldn’t get to the group activities.”

What are the benefits of AAI?

There are lots of potential reasons why animals are a beneficial form of therapy. Animals live in the present moment, they aren’t judgemental, and they’re accepting. This can open the way for people to feel more at ease and improve their social interactions.

Joanne agrees: “The activities involving animals always attract the most attention – people enjoy being involved. Animal visits draw people out who don’t always find it easy to socialise and chatting about the animals really brings people together.”

Who does AAI help?

While research is still ongoing, animal-assisted interventions may be helpful for people of all ages with various health conditions. This includes: dementia, depression, schizophrenia, alcohol and drug addiction, stroke, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and spinal cord injuries. Overall the evidence shows some promise, but more thorough research is needed.

Animal magic

While health professionals only use animal-assisted interventions in certain situations, the basic principle of it is enjoying the company of animals, and that’s something any of us can do.

Here are some ways you can enjoy the company of animals for a boost to your wellbeing.

  • Go to the park. In London, if you’re lucky, you can sometimes spot the bright green parakeets flying about. Parks all over the country though are teeming with animals – look out for birds, squirrels, ducks and swans. Some parks also have enclosures for animals – such as goats and deer.
  • Walk along the river or canal and spot the ducks, fish and insects.
  • Go to a farm or city farm – these can be great for children to meet pigs, goats, sheep and smaller animals like guinea pigs.
  • Join a friend’s dog walk for the benefits of a chin wag and a tail wag!
  • Take a trip to a nature reserve – spending time in nature – in the greenery, is good for your wellbeing.
  • Watch some funny videos – the world is not short on funny cat videos!

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Bupa Health Editor Natalie Heaton
Natalie Heaton (she/her)
Health and Lifestyle Editor at Bupa UK

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    • Animal-assisted interventions. Royal College of Nursing., last updated 7 May 2019
    • Working with dogs in healthcare settings. Royal College of Nursing., published 14 May 2018
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