By Maddy Turner
I don’t know about you, but pets just seem to make the world a little brighter and happier to me. I might be having a crappy day at work, but by golly, if I see a little pup walking around with its owner, tail wagging, tongue dopily hanging out, something inside me shifts, and I feel just a little bit better. I’m sure it’s not just me who feels like this, and a bit of research reveals that I’m not wrong.
All throughout history, animals have had some role in assisting humans with their physical and mental health and just overall happiness. In fact, Animal Assisted Therapy began with the Ancient Greeks. They actually used horses in order to lift the spirits of the severely ill. Now granted, it’s probably not such a good idea to have a horse lying on your bed as you lay there deathly ill – they aren’t quite as small as dogs after all. But that isn’t what the Ancient Greeks did – in fact, they instead found that horseback riding had many benefits. Ancient Greek writings from Hippocrates (from around 460 BC) document these. He writes an entire chapter on ‘Natural Exercise’ which mentions riding being healthy, and from there the idea of ‘therapeutic horse riding’ only grew.
Eventually, it made its way into the UK where Olive Sands (a doctor at the time) used horse riding at the Oxford Hospital to help rehabilitate soldiers wounded in the First World War. It helped them to rebuild their relationships and trust with others. So it seems as though horses were some of the first recorded animals that can be called “therapy pets” – however, soon enough other animals were too deemed comforting and beneficial to humans.
In Medieval Belgium, animals and humans were rehabilitated from injury and illness together. It seemed the affection that humans could show towards the animals helped them grow in companionship together. Then in the 1800s, Florence Nightingale discovered that small pets helped in lowering anxiety levels in both adult and youth psychiatric patients, and it’s a fact that we also rely on today.
Further along, in the 1940s, the Red Cross began to use farm animals as a way to help mentally and physically ill war veterans; the veterans were able to look after the animals and bond with them which assisted in furthering their recovery. It helped them put their minds on something other than the war. This is one of the first times animals were officially used to help with PTSD.
Eventually, the idea was developed that was called the ‘human-animal bond’, which describes how people need interaction with animals and nature to normalise the busyness of everyday life. This could not be more true to modern times. In Australia 2019, there is an estimation of 24 million pets in households, which is roughly the same as the current human population!
These days we also have specially trained Animal Assisted Therapy pets (mainly dogs) that can help people with anything from Autism Spectrum Disorder, to vision impairment, to anxiety. An assistance animal is a trained animal that assists a person with a disability to alleviate the effects of said disability – an example of an assistance animal is a Guide Dog. I myself have a therapy dog who helps me cope with anxiety. Honestly he’s my best friend (as cliche as it sounds), and he’s helped me progress so much in my mental and physical health.
My advice? Get a pet. I understand that many places (mainly rentals) won’t allow dogs and cats, but honestly any pet (if you truly care about it and take care of it) can really help with your mental health. Even fish! I have a friend who loves her fish and keeps him in a tank beside her bed so… Numerous studies also show that having a pet can generally help you live a longer, happier and healthier life, even if they aren’t specially trained for it. Dogs specifically have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease in their owners.
So I guess, animals truly do know the way to our hearts.