Animal assisted therapy and the disabled: How our furry friends have helped us today and in the nineteenth century

In Britain, we are a well-known society of animal lovers- many of us owning a beloved pet which we view as much a member of the family as mum, dad, brothers or sisters. Nowadays, seeing a dog leading a deaf or blind person, or a child with autism going to animal therapy where they learn to fly falcons or ride horses is not uncommon. Pets commonly represent an entire stage of a person’s life, their devotion even being proved to lower blood pressure and aid treatment for heart attacks and strokes. However, how does this fit into the nineteenth century and children? Evidence has emerged that animal therapy was used in this century, after the ideas of enlightenment emerged of using more moral and rewarding ways of recreation.

The nineteenth century

This topic has mainly been written about by psychologists and philosophers and is interesting to look at from the perspective of a historian. There is definitely a lack of focus on this area of disability history. For example, a mental asylum in England called the Society of Friends used animals like rabbits as a focus for the person on something other than themselves and for peaceful interaction, which I am sure we can all relate to today. Animals that were used were not the mainstream cat or dog as we see taken into hospitals for patient recreation nowadays, but usually rabbits, sea gulls and hawks. Later, after the British Charity commissioners reviewed the terrible conditions of asylums throughout the country, in the 1830s they concluded that the institutions be filled with, “sheep, hares, a monkey or some other domestic or social animals.” It was believed that animals were perceived in a calming and healing way and that some of the mentally ill spoke to them if no one else would listen to them, and, in a way, aiding their problems.

More sympathetic attitudes towards animals and the idea of wilderness and animals threatening survival began to fade and were replaced by enlightened views and a more positive opinion of nature and its calming effects. It was seen as escapism from the pollution and strife of urban living. In literature the poems of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge reflected these views and animals in particular were perceived as having free souls and being able to embrace nature in a way we could not.

For children, animals being an important part of social development became important at this time, as written about by John Locke in 1699 that animals encouraged them to develop feelings and responsibilities for other people. Reformers came to perceive animals as useful for children in learning to control and reflect on their own “beast-like characteristics,” by learning to control their own animals. This links in with Charles Darwin’s theory on evolution- On the Origin of the species 1859 – which was truly revolutionary in that it stated how we’re all animals which therefore helps us to understand why people believed in a view that animals helped us to express ourselves.


Today, there is more of a widespread recognition of animals and their abilities in helping the disabled and so evidence is a lot easier to find than in the nineteenth century. But ideas seem fairly similar and reminiscent of the early-enlightened views. Charities have been set up to provide animals in hospitals, such as Pets as Therapy established in 1983, where in the UK they have 4500 active dogs and 108 cats helping 130 000 people a year. Even dolphins and horses are now used in this extraordinary way. Animals are rewarded for their work, notably with younger children who can become isolated from their disability, where they help them to become more independent, confident and less isolated. Children feel more confortable talking to animals as animals do not judge and their companionship helps children who are blind, deaf, with autism or ADHD. They are unsung heroes in aiding mental health and well-being.




Altschiller Donald, Animal-assisted therapy, third edition, (California: Greenwood publishing group, 2011) pp. 3-7.

Fine Aubrey H ed, Handbook on animal-assisted therapy- theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice, second edition, (London: Elsevier, 2006) pp. 11-13.



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