Dogs on Call therapy dog at VCU Medical Center

Human Animal Interaction

How pets can benefit our mental health

Millions of people around the world had been suffering from loneliness and social isolation even before the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the pandemic has only exacerbated this critical issue with 2020 figures show a considerable rise in the number of people experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety across the world. 

Existing research suggests owning or interacting with pets may benefit the mental and physical health of people of all ages:

Recommended: The power of pets: The science behind how animals impact our mental health



Might aging adults benefit from animal-assisted interactions?


Figures show pandemic restrictions may have taken a greater toll on the mental health of older adults who were often already feeling the stress and anxiety brought by social isolation before social distancing measures were imposed. 

Although some studies have indicated pets might help reduce older adults’ loneliness, there has been little research into the quality of human-animal interactions that may help the elderly feel less lonely.  

At Mars Petcare, we are supporting rigorous research based on high-quality, standardised measures, which can inform policies and enable access to animal-assisted interventions for those who may benefit most. 

One example is a new, pioneering study by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Medicine’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction and its Dogs on Call therapy dog program, which aims to analyse how therapy dogs may help ease hospitalised seniors’ feelings of loneliness and social isolation, as well as how these interactions might benefit patients’ recovery. This randomised clinical trial will monitor patient’s mood, feelings of loneliness and anxiety before and right after interacting with the Dogs on Call human-canine teams, in comparison to other patients conversing with human volunteers and those receiving treatment as usual. 

Researchers will also analyse any long-term effects animal therapy might have, as they plan to monitor patients’ loneliness, depression and anxiety levels and other health related outcomes up to six months after the animal visits. 

Dogs’ wellbeing will also be an important part of the study, as researchers will measure certain behaviours indicating stress including pacing, scratching or restlessness– using the Whistle FIT, a smart pet device that monitors the dogs’ activity and behavior. The dogs’ handlers will also be surveying their dog’s behavior and wellbeing throughout the study.

This timely study will be an important step forward in answering key questions related to the possible impact of animal therapy on patients’ recovery time and healthcare costs. It will also help researchers estimate the possible impact of therapy dogs in other hospital settings and with other vulnerable populations. “This pilot study will set the stage for future multi-site, randomised, controlled studies - the gold standard methodology we need to assess the efficacy of these interventions as well as the durability of possible effects”, says human-animal interaction expert Nancy Gee, Ph.D., lead researcher on the study and Professor of Psychiatry, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.   

Watch human-animal interaction experts talk about the study and what it means for the future of this research field: 


Download our resources to learn more about the benefits of human-animal interaction: