How animals affect children's development and mental health  

Written by Jenny Phillips - 29th April 2022 (National Pet Month)

 

The connection between animals and humans is a powerful one and the resulting positive correlations with a person’s mental health is undeniable and research validates this thinking. 


It doesn’t matter if a child’s animal friend is furry, feathered or scaled, animals can have a significant impact on their lives and on their mental health, which will have resonating effects through their growth, development and life.


Animals have been identified as having positive impacts on depression, stress and anxiety while also providing companionship and reducing loneliness. The additional benefits of animals are that they provide unconditional love and pleasure. 


Animals provide a sense of calm and have a relaxing effect; not only can animals improve a person’s mood, but they can also: 

 

  • Reduce stress levels
  • Reduce anxiety levels
  • Reduce rates of anxiety / depression
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Cause feelings of happiness and optimism 
  • Strengthen and develop resilience
  • Strengthen emotional regulation skills
  • Improve cognitive function
  • Heighten empathy and feelings of trust toward others 
  • Increase self-confidence
  • Increase social connections 


Aeron Katcher, a psychiatry professor in the U.S., identified that man’s relationship with animals has been going on for centuries and our evaluation together has developed a need to pay attention to and interact with animals. This hypothesis relates to Wilsons Biophilia hypothesis and a number of studies have provided positive evidence that this relationship between animal and man has positive mental health benefits.

 

Stress reduction


Being with, touching and interacting with animals, has been shown to reduce stress related hormones. Engaging with animals raises our serotonin and dopamine levels, both of which are hormones that relax and calm our nervous system. It is our enjoyment with animals and resulting smiles and laughter that helps to stimulate and release these ‘happy hormones’. In addition, these animal interactions reduce the body’s levels of cortisol (stress hormone), while also increasing the release of oxytocin, a natural occurring chemical within the body that reduces stress.


The sensory impact of stroking animals: 


  • Lowers blood pressure 
  • Reduces heart rates
  • Regulates breathing 
  • Relaxes muscle tension


These are all physiological signs of stress reduction.

 

Mindfulness


Animals live in the now, in this moment, they don’t worry about the events of yesterday, nor do they worry about what might happen tomorrow. As a result, animals can facilitate and support children / people to become more mindful. Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention and focus to the present moment. This means that animals have the ability to help children (and adults) appreciate and enjoy the present moment and remind them how to be playful and carefree and not worried, anxious, stressed or fearful.

 

Social Connection


Animals facilitate children and adults to form social connections, they provide a bridge and a form of social lubricant through reduction of social anxiety, as they provide a common topic to talk about. This then means that animals have the capacity to reduce social isolation and support relationship formation. When a person has increased relationships and friendships, their mental health improves through healthier mentality and general feeling of wellbeing.

 

Childhood anxiety


Children that grow up with and around animals, are identified as being more likely to develop a positive self-image, Gadomski (2015). Through their emotional attachment to the animals, they learn and develop feelings of care, and this means they have a stronger ability to form healthy relationships and bonds with others as teens and adults. 


A lot of children will talk to animals / pets happily and freely, telling them things they could find difficult to express to others as they are not sure how to express themselves, or don’t understand what they are feeling / experiencing. The animals then become a sounding board while the child develops their thought patterns. This unconditional acceptance, love and companionship, provides the safe arena for expression, the platform which all good therapy is based upon.

Support emotional growth


The American psychology association published a study by McConnell (2011), exploring the impacts of pet ownership / animals on mental health. The results identified that people were better adjusted, more confident, healthy and focused. They also found that these people were more outgoing and had higher levels of self-esteem. They identified that those who engaged with animals, appeared to be more interactive and better able to connect with others.

 

ASD example


There have been many different studies focusing on animal interactions with children who have a diagnosis of autism and positive effect outcomes have been identified throughout these. A study by O’Haire (2013) undertaken with guinea pigs in the classroom with a group of supervised children for ten minutes playtime, identified that their anxiety levels decreased, they had better social interactions and highlighted that the children were engaged with their class peers. The common factor across many of the research undertakings is that the animals offer and provide unconditional acceptance, which made them a calming comfort for the children involved.

 

Animal interventions & animal therapy


Animal therapy can be undertaken in many different forms:


  • Observation
  • Touching 
  • Hearing


Basically, any form that makes a person feel happier, a bit prouder, more motivated to do something like an activity / smile, speak etc. or become more confident. Therapy can be either direct, which means there is a specific focus, aim and outcome, or non-direct where the focus is open.


There is no one specific animal that needs to be used. There are common ones like dogs and horses that many people have heard of and may be aware of, but there is a whole animal kingdom out there that can be engaged in many different formats to suit the needs of all. 

 

Meet some of the lesser-known animals used in therapy

 

 Bearded dragon -  has been used with those who have body image issues & disabilities

 


 Snakes - have been used with those with eating disorders & also with boys receiving therapy to help engagement 


 Donkeys - used with those children who have experienced emotional, psychological or physical trauma


 Rabbits - used for empathy, body language reading / awareness & therapy for those with disabilities for better focus


 Chickens - used with children who have ADHD, as they often have a calming effect on the children when they care for & play with them


 Elephants - In South Africa, they are used with children who have experienced trauma and have disabilities, to develop concentration & self-discipline


Animals are a big part of the natural world and for some children and families, a big part of their lives. Unfortunately, not all children are afforded this opportunity to engage with and become friends with animals. Animals are friends, companions, service animals and co-workers, however they are more than just these labels and being with them provides a whole range of benefits that are not visible. Animals can have an impactful, meaningful and lasting effect on our mental health, those paws, claws and fins have power over our brains and minds. 

 

References:


Gadomski. A. M., Scribani, M. B., Krupa, N., Jenkins, P., Nagykaldi, Z. and Olson, A. L. Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention? Preventing chronic disease, public health research, practice and policy. Volume 12 — November 25, 2015 


McConnell, A. R. and Brown, C. M. Friends with Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association
2011, Vol. 101, No. 6, 1239 –1252


O’Haire. M. E., McKenzie. S. J., McCune. S, and Slaughter. V. Effects of Animal-Assisted Activities with Guinea Pigs in the Primary School Classroom. Anthrozoos. 2013; 26(3):

 

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As well as her extensive experience as a nurse, Jenny is a qualified Nursery Nurse with her NNEB, ADCE, CACHE Diploma level 3 and CACHE SEN cert and over 7 years of experience within a nursery setting. Jenny has spent time working as a lecturer in Child Health at Middlesex University and as a Qualified paediatric nurse and Neonatal intensive care nurse with over 13 years of experience in neonates. Her work as a disability youth worker led to Jenny gaining further qualifications, including two honours degrees and a MA in Inclusive Education, specifically focussing on therapeutic use of animals with children who have SEN to help education, development, growth, health and wellbeing. Jenny also has a PGCE. Currently, Jenny is also a forest school practitioner with 3 and 4 year olds, and is qualified in animal therapy and farm therapy.