Pet Ownership and Physical Health

Robert L. Matchock


Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2015;28(5):386-392. 

In This Article

Randomized Control Group Field Studies

Stefanini et al.[42] utilized a prepost-randomized control group design on a sample of 34 adolescents who were hospitalized for acute mental illness. Global functioning, clinical ratings of the severity of the illness, and school attendance, all increased more in the treatment group (dog exposure) than in the control group. In a randomized cross-over design to examine motivation for physical activity in 12 obese children in the presence and absence of a dog, children showed less passive behaviors and increased physical activity in the dog condition,[43] possibly because of the dog activating implicit motives to engage in physical activity. Harper et al.[44] randomly assigned 72 patients recovering from total joint arthroplasty to a treatment condition involving three sessions with a therapy dog or to a control condition which received standard physical therapy. Self-reported pain was significantly lower in the treatment group for their three postoperative sessions.

In the first randomized controlled trial of dementia patients, Majic et al.[45] randomly assigned 65 patients with moderate to severe dementia to a traditional therapy condition or a traditional therapy coupled with AAT (dog) condition. Over a 10-week period, agitation/aggression and depression increased in the control group, but remained constant in the AAT group, suggesting that AAT may delay the inevitable exacerbation of symptoms of dementia. Another randomized control study[46] compared group therapy in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (N = 24), with and without the presence of a dog during the sessions. Children in therapy sessions with a dog showed better attention and inhibitory control.

Nurenberg et al.[47] compared the effectiveness of canine-assisted psychotherapy, equine-assisted psychotherapy, and two standard therapy controls in 90 long-term psychiatric patients in a pretest and posttest randomized control design, finding that violent behavior decreased significantly but only in the equine group. Beinotti et al.[48] used a randomized control trial to evaluate the effectiveness of traditional physiotherapy with and without horseback riding on the quality of life in 24 stroke patients. Quality of life scores were higher in the group that participated in horseback riding. This type of therapy may be effective through not only purely physical aspects (e.g., adjusting to the motion of the horse), but also psychological mechanisms. For example, establishing rapport with the horse and mastering riding can improve a host of benefits such as increases in self-esteem, confidence, and accomplishment. Similarly, one of the first controlled studies on the effects of horseback riding on breast cancer survivors[49] showed that the treatment group experienced significant improvements on numerous aspects of aerobic capacity, strength, and quality of life. Collectively, the above better-controlled studies more forcefully argue that AAT may be more therapeutic than no-AAT controls for a wide variety of conditions such as negative symptoms of mental illness, ADHD, and dementia, as well as overall quality of life for stroke and breast cancer survivors.