By Bron Sibree
  • The power of pets

    The power of pets


It’s something most pet owners already knew, but clinical psychologist Talya Carter now has evidence to prove that owning a pet can have significant positive effects for those suffering from depression and stress

We’ve all heard the saying, ‘you’ll never be lonely with a dog,’ but clinical psychologist Talya Carter wanted to examine what lay behind that old adage.

So she decided to study the benefits of human-animal bonds in a unique PhD research project, which examined the benefits of companion animal ownership among Vietnam veterans still suffering a range of complex psychosocial difficulties and poor mental health decades after their military service had ended.

“What emerged as I started interviewing Veterans was the importance of the human animal bond on their psychosocial functioning,”
says Talya.

“The stronger the bond was with their companion animal, the more therapeutic benefits they got from that relationship.”

But not all human-animal bonds are the same, as she soon discovered.  For example, the veterans didn’t develop strong attachments with all of their companion animals.

“In fact if they didn’t develop a strong bond with them, they would give them back to the RSPCA. I didn’t expect that, and it’s sad, but understandable.”

But what surprised her even more was discovering just what it was that facilitated the development of a close bond.

“For this population, it was very much that their companion animals - all canine, though some had cats as well - had to have a compatible temperament, and dogs who were placid and had the ability to be trained well worked best,” she said.

“I think that was related to their military experience and how ingrained a sense of order is in them. But perhaps more research is needed around whether that finding would be similar in other populations or whether that’s unique to a veterans case study.”

 In the course of her research, she interviewed twelve Vietnam veterans of whom around 90 per cent had diagnoses of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“Many of them were still having feelings of isolation and loneliness despite treatment, and I also interviewed a few who had gone out bush and had really struggled to reintegrate.

“They all had a strong relationship with at least one of their companion animals over the course of their life and I was in tears a lot of the time at the way they spoke about the loss of these significant pets, as if they were part of the family. A couple had been suicidal in the past, and said that it was their animals that had saved them.”

This is a theme that also recurs frequently in Talya’s current work with Lifeline, WA’s front line suicide prevention body.

“Animals being a strong protective factor against suicide is something that hasn’t yet been fully explored,” she says.

“Other research does show that even chance encounters and taking pets to elderly people, for example, does reduce stress. But what is also emerging is that it is the attachment, the relationship, not just interactions with unfamiliar animals which have real positive effects, that the stronger the bonds, the stronger the benefits.”

 This will, she believes, not only have some benefits within the research field, but will also have significant relevance within the community.

“People who have experience with pets will say, ‘well, that’s normal,’ but to actually have research around what we all sort of knew as rule of thumb is really useful.

And if people could be matched to certain pets that have a compatible temperament allowing them to  forge that strong non-judgemental relationship with them, then I think the benefits are far-reaching.”  ••

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