in historical perspective
James A. Serpell, PhD
University of Pennsylvania
Although every topic has its own unique history that can be explored, analyzed and
interpreted, the limits of historical inquiry are inevitably bound by the quantity and
quality of surviving documents and artifacts. Unfortunately, surviving historical
accounts of people’s relationships with animals are both unusual and sketchy, and the
little documentary evidence that exists tends to refer to the lives of the rich and
famous. Our knowledge of how ordinary people in the past related to animals, or
made use of their companionship, remains indistinct and largely speculative. Even
where the historical evidence is relatively complete, there is a danger of over-
interpreting it—of attributing values, attitudes, and sentiments that make sense to us
from a modern perspective, but which would not necessarily have possessed any
meaning for our historical predecessors. All of this demands that we treat historical
evidence with an appropriate degree of caution.
With this proviso in mind, the present chapter will attempt to provide a brief
historical account of the various ways in which animals in general, and companion
animals in particular, have been perceived as contributing to human mental and
physical health. While attempting to set this work in historical context, the chapter
will not attempt a detailed review of recent studies of animal/human therapeutic
interactions, since this material has already been adequately covered elsewhere (see
Kruger et al., 2004; Serpell, 1996; Wilson and Turner, 1998).
2.2 Animal souls and spiritual healing
In the history of human ideas concerning the origins and treatment of illness and
disease, non-human animals play a variety of important roles. The precise charac-
teristics of these roles depend, however, not only on the prevailing view of animals,
but also on the particular supernatural or “scientiﬁc” belief systems in which they are
Probably the most archaic of these belief systems, usually referred to as “Animism,”
involves the concept that all living creatures, as well as other natural objects and
Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-381453-1.10002-9
Copyright Ó2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
phenomena, are imbued with an invisible soul, spirit or “essence” that animates the
conscious body, but that is able to move about and act independently of the body when
the bearer is either dreaming or otherwise unconscious. According to the typical
animist worldview, all manifestations of sickness or misfortune are the direct result of
assaults against a person’s soul or “essence” by other angry or malevolent spirits
encountered during these periods of unconsciousness. In some cases, these spiritual
assaults are thought to be retaliatory; the result of some deliberate or inadvertent moral
transgression on the part of the person. Alternatively, the person may be the innocent
victim of an attack by spirits acting on behalf of a malevolent shaman or witch. Clues to
the origins of spiritual assaults are often provided by the content of the dreams or
visions that immediately preceded a particular bout of illness, injury or misfortune
(Benedict, 1929; Campbell, 1984; Eliade, 1964; Hallowell, 1926; Martin, 1978;
Nelson, 1986; Serpell, 2005; Speck, 1977; Wenzel, 1991).
Animist belief systems are characteristic of all hunting and foraging societies, and
among these societies, offended animal spirits are often viewed as the most common
source of malignant spiritual inﬂuences. Many Inuit peoples believe, for example, that
the spirits of hunted animals, like the ghosts of murdered humans, are capable of
seeking vengeance. To avoid this happening, all animals, whether dead or alive, are
treated with great respect. Otherwise, the hunter or his family can expect to suffer
some misfortune: the animals will no longer allow themselves to be killed, or they
may take their revenge by afﬂicting someone with disease, physical handicap or even
death (Wenzel, 1991). As an Inuit informant once eloquently expressed it:
The greatest peril in life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls. All
the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those that we have to strike down and
destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls, like we have, souls that do not
perish with the body, and which must therefore be propitiated lest they should
avenge themselves on us for taking away their bodies.
(Rasmussen, 1929, p. 56)
In other hunting and foraging cultures, more specialized sets of moral relations
existed between people and the animals they hunted for food. For instance, many
Native American and Eurasian peoples believed in the concept of personal “guardian
spirits” (Benedict, 1929; Hultzkrantz, 1987). Among the Ojibwa (Chippewa) and
their Algonkian neighbors, these spirits were known as manito and they were
commonly represented as the spiritual prototypes or ancestor ﬁgures of wild animals.
All of these manito were thought of in highly anthropomorphic terms. They were
easily offended, capricious, and often bad-tempered, but they could also be appeased
and, to some extent, cajoled by ritual means. Living animals were regarded as
“honored servants” of their respective manito, and one such spirit apparently presided
over and represented all of the earthly members of its species. At the same time,
animals were also viewed as temporary incarnations of each manito who sent them
out periodically to be killed by favored hunters or ﬁshermen. For this reason, hunters
invariably performed deferential rituals upon killing an animal, so that its “essence”
would return to the manito with a favorable account of how it was treated.
18 Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy
According to the Ojibwa worldview, the activities of manito explained nearly all
the circumstances of everyday life. Every natural object, whether animate or inani-
mate, was charged with spiritual power, and no misfortune, whether illness, injury,
death, or failure in hunting or ﬁshing, was considered accidental or free from the
personalized intent of one manito or another (Landes, 1968). Animal guardian spirits
were also believed to vary in terms of power. Some species, especially small and
relatively insigniﬁcant ones, such as the majority of insects, and such things as mice,
rats or squirrels, were believed to possess correspondingly limited spiritual inﬂuence,
and rarely furnished people with useful guardian spirits. In contrast, more physically
impressive species, such as bears, bison, wolves or eagles, were deemed to possess
extraordinary spiritual power, and were therefore eagerly sought after as patrons
(Benedict, 1929; Landes, 1968).
The methods used to obtain the patronage of these kinds of guardian spirits varied
from culture to culture, but they almost invariably involved some form of physical
ordeal (Benedict, 1929). Among the Ojibwa, young men at puberty were expected to
isolate themselves in the forest and endure long periods of fasting, sleeplessness and
eventual delirium in an effort to obtain visions. Those who were successful experi-
enced vivid hallucinations in which their “souls” entered the spirit world and
encountered one or more manito who offered their future help and protection in return
for a variety of ritual obligations. Manito advice or assistance could sometimes be
discerned through natural portents and coincidences but, more often, guidance came
indirectly through the medium of subsequent dreams and visions. At such times the
person’s “soul” was believed to re-enter the supernatural dimension and confer with
its spiritual guardian. The content of dreams was therefore considered of primary
importance as a guide to action in daily life (Landes, 1968).
In some societies, it was considered virtually suicidal to injure, kill or eat any
member of the same species as one’s guardian spirit. Like the Ancient Mariner’s
albatross, it could result in the withdrawal of spiritual patronage, and cause general
misfortune, illness, and death. On the other hand, and in an equally large number of
cultures, the guardian spirit speciﬁcally awarded its prote
´the authority to kill
members of its own species (Benedict, 1929; Hallowell, 1926).
As in most ﬁelds of individual achievement, not all men and women were equally
good at obtaining the support of animal guardian spirits. Some never obtained visions
and were regarded as “empty, fearful and cowardly” for the rest of their lives. A small
minority, on the contrary, displayed extraordinary visionary talents and were
henceforth regarded as medicine men, sorcerers or shamans (Landes, 1968).
2.3 Animal powers and shamanism
Mircea Eliade (1964) refers to shamanism as an “archaic technique of ecstasy”
derived from guardian spirit belief. Both represent quests for magico-religious
powers, and shamans differ from everyone else only in “their capacity for ecstatic
experience, which, for the most part, is equivalent to a vocation” (Eliade, 1964,
p. 107). Although shamanic power was derived from the assistance of one or more
Animal-assisted interventions in historical perspective 19
guardian spirits, the relationship between the shaman and his spiritual “helpers” or
“familiars” was both more intimate and more intense than that attained by ordinary
persons. In most cases, the shaman not only earned the patronage of guardian spirits
but also developed the capacity to control them.
Shamans, typically, could achieve this power at will by entering a state of trance or
ecstasy, usually induced by monotonous chanting, drumming and dancing, and
commonly assisted by the consumption of psycho-active drugs. Such states were
considered to be analogous to death – the only other time when a person’s “essence”
becomes truly detached from the body and capable of independent actions in time and
space. According to Eliade, this ecstatic “out-of-body” experience enables the
shaman to divest himself of human form and recover the situation that existed at the
beginning of time when no clear distinctions separated humans from animals. As
a result, he is able to re-establish friendship with animals, acquire knowledge of their
language, and also the ability to transform himself into an animal as and when
occasion demands. The result is a kind of symbiosis in which the person and the
guardian spirit fuse to become two aspects of the same individual (Eliade, 1964).
Although they occasionally take human form, the vast majority of shamanic
“familiars” are animals of one kind or another. Once he has adopted this disguise, the
shaman is able to move about freely, gather information and perform magical acts at
a distance from his body. It is unclear from the various anthropological accounts,
however, whether the animal spirit had its own independent existence when not in the
shaman’s service, or whether it was simply a material form assumed by the shaman
when engaging in the practice of magic. Stories and legends concerning shamans
provide conﬂicting evidence in this respect. In some, shamans are said to be able to
disappear when attacked or pursued, whereupon all that will be seen is some swift-
footed animal or bird departing from the scene. If this animal is injured or killed, the
shaman will experience an identical mishap wherever his or her body happens to be.
On the other hand, shamans never killed or consumed the ﬂesh of animals belonging
to their familiar’s species, implying that these spirits existed separately, and could
easily be mistaken for ordinary animals (Speck, 1918).
Depending on their particular talents, shamans are believed to be able to foretell the
future, advise on the whereabouts of game animals or predict impending catastrophes.
Their ability to control the forces of nature can also be employed to manipulate the
weather, subdue animals or bring them close to the hunter. Above all, since all mani-
festations of ill-health are thought to be caused by angry or malignant spirits, shamans
possess a virtual monopoly on the treatment of sickness. Since the shaman is generally
the only individual capable of visiting the spirit world at will through the agency of his
animal “familiars,” he provides the only reliable method of discovering and counter-
acting the spiritual origins of physical and mental illness (Eliade, 1964; Speck, 1918).
2.4 Animism in classical and medieval times
Although animist belief systems are particularly characteristic of hunting and
foraging peoples, they have also persisted in a variety of forms in many pastoral
20 Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy
nomadic and agricultural societies where they often coexist, through a process of
synchretic fusion, with more recently imposed religious creeds and practices. An
interesting contemporary example still ﬂourishes among Central American indige-
nous peoples such as the Maya. Although Christianized and agricultural, the Mayan
inhabitants of Chamula in the Mexican province of Chiapas believe in the existence of
individual “soul animals” or chanul that are assigned to each person at birth by the
celestial powers, and which share reciprocally every stroke of fortune that their
human counterparts experience. All chanul are non-domesticated mammals with ﬁve
digits, and they are physically indistinguishable from actual wild animals. Indeed,
a person may only discover the identity of his soul animal through its recurrent
appearance in dreams, or with the help of a shaman (Gossen, 1996).
The Maya believe that most illness is the result of an injury inﬂicted upon
a person’s chanul. These injuries may be inﬂicted deliberately via witchcraft, by
another person mistaking one’s chanul for an ordinary animal and hurting or killing it,
or it may be “self-inﬂicted” in the sense that the person may allow him or herself to
experience overly intense emotions, such as intense fear, rage, excitement or sexual
pleasure, that can frighten or upset the chanul. The people of Chamula are also
extremely reluctant to kill any wild mammal with ﬁve digits, since by doing so they
believe they might inadvertently kill themselves, or a friend or relative.
As far as curative measures are concerned, the only traditional remedy for an
illness resulting from damage to one’s soul animal is to employ the services of
a shaman who will use various rituals, and the inﬂuence of his own, more powerful
soul animals, to discover the source of the afﬂiction and counteract it. According
to Mayan folklore, shamans and witches also possess the ability to adopt the
material form of their chanul in order to gain access to the supernatural realm
The purpose of dwelling on this particular example of contemporary Amerindian
belief in soul animals is that it illustrates, according to Gossen (1996), the remarkable
tenacity of animistic/shamanistic ideas and practices in Central America, despite the
coercive inﬂuence of nearly ﬁve centuries of imported Roman Catholicism. Similarly,
in Europe and around the Mediterranean basin, it appears that vestiges of comparable
belief systems survived in a number of local and regional healing cults, at least until
the early modern period.
In the pre-classical period, the connection with animism was particularly obvious.
In ancient Egypt, for example, the entire pantheon was dominated by distinctly
shamanic images of animal-headed gods and goddesses, including the dog-headed
Anubis who guided the souls of the dead on their journey through the underworld, and
whose other roles included physician and apothecary to the gods, and guardian of the
mysteries of mummiﬁcation and reincarnation. Dogs and snakes were also the sacred
emblems of the Sumerian goddess, Gula the “Great Physician,” and of the Babylonian
and Chaldean deity, Marduk, another god of healing and reincarnation (Dale-Green,
1966; Schwabe, 1994).
In the classical period, the animist associations are somewhat less prominent but
still readily discernible. Within the Greek pantheon, the gods were less often rep-
resented as animals, but they retained the shamanic ability to transform themselves
Animal-assisted interventions in historical perspective 21
into animals in order to disguise their true identities. Dogs and serpents also played
a central role in the cult of Asklepios (Aesculapius), the son of Apollo, who was
known as the God of Medicine and the Divine Physician. Asklepios’s shrine in the
sacred grove at Epidaurus functioned as a kind of ancient health resort. Like modern
day Lourdes, it attracted crowds of suppliants seeking relief from a great variety of
maladies. As part of the “cure,” it provided an early instance of institutional, animal-
assisted therapy. Treatment involved various rites of puriﬁcation and sacriﬁce fol-
lowed by periods of (drug-induced?) sleep within the main body of the shrine.
During their slumbers the God visited each of his “patients,” sometimes in human
form but more often in the guise of a snake or a dog that licked them on the relevant
injured or ailing portions of their anatomy. It appears that the dogs that lived around
the shrine may have been specially trained to lick people. It was believed that these
animals actually represented the God and had the power to cure illness with their
tongues (Dale-Green, 1966; Toynbee, 1973). Inscribed tablets found within the
precincts of the temple at Epidaurus testify to the miraculous powers of the local
Thuson of Hermione, a blind boy, had his eyes licked in the daytime by one of the dogs
about the temple, and departed cured.
A dog cured a boy from Aigina. He had a growth on his neck. When he had come
to the god, one of the sacred dogs healed him while he was awake with his tongue and
made him well.
Although evidently material in form, the healing dogs and snakes at Epidaurus
clearly fulﬁlled much the same function as shamanic spirit helpers. Through their
ability to renew themselves periodically by shedding their skins, not to mention their
potentially venomous qualities, snakes have always possessed strong associations
with healing, death and reincarnation (Morris and Morris, 1968). Likewise, in
mythology, the dog is commonly represented as an intermediary between this world
and the next. Some authors have attributed this to the dog’s carrion-eating propen-
sities, while others ascribe it to the dog’s proverbial watchfulness and alertness to
unseen “spiritual” threats, as well as its liminal, ambiguous status as a voluntary
occupant of the boundary zone separating human and animal, culture and nature
(Serpell, 1995; White, 1991).
During the early centuries of Christianity, traces of ancient shamanic ideas and
practices were still prevalent throughout much of Europe. In addition to being healers,
most of the early Celtic saints and holy men of Britain and Ireland were distinguished
by their special rapport with animals, and many, according to legend, experienced
bodily transformations into animal form (Armstrong, 1973; Matthews, 1991).
St. Francis of Assisi, who appears have been inﬂuenced by Irish monastic traditions,
has also been described as a “nature mystic.” Among other feats, he preached sermons
to rapt audiences of birds, and was able to pacify rabid wolves (Armstrong, 1973).
One of his followers, St. Anthony of Padua (1195–1231), preached so eloquently to
the ﬁshes in the sea that they all lined up along the shoreline to listen to his words of
wisdom (Spencer, 1993).
22 Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy
The particular notion that dogs could heal injuries or sores by touching or licking
them also persisted well into the Christian era. St. Roch who, like Asklepios, was
generally depicted in the company of a dog, seems to have been cured of plague sores by
the licking of his canine companion. St. Christopher, St. Bernard and a number of other
saints were also associated with dogs, and many of them had reputations as healers.
A faint ghost of older, shamanistic traditions can also be detected in the curious
medieval cult of the greyhound saint, St. Guinefort. Guinefort, or so the legend goes,
was unjustly slaughtered by his noble master who mistakenly believed that the dog
had killed and devoured his child. Soon afterwards, however, the babe was found
sleeping peacefully beside the remains of a huge, predatory serpent that Guinefort
had fought and killed. Overcome with remorse, the knight threw the dog’s carcass
into a well, covered it with a great pile of stones, and planted a grove of trees around
it to commemorate the event. During the thirteenth century, this grove, about
40 kilometers north of the city of Lyons, became the center of a pagan healing cult.
Peasants from miles around brought their sick and ailing children to the shrine where
miraculous cures were apparently performed (Schmitt, 1983).
Centuries later, the close companionship of a “Spaniel Gentle or Comforter”—
a sort of nondescript, hairy lap-dog—was still being recommended to the ladies of
Elizabethan England as a remedy for a variety of ills. William Harrison, in his
Description of England (1577), admitted to some skepticism on the subject: “It is
thought by some that it is verie wholesome for a weake stomach to beare such a dog in
the bosome, as it is for him that hath the palsie to feele the dailie smell and savour of
a fox. But how truelie this is afﬁrmed let the learned judge.” The learned Dr. Caius,
author of De Canibus Britannicus (1570), was less inclined to doubt: “though some
suppose that such dogges are fyt for no service, I dare say, by their leaves, they be in
a wrong boxe.” He was of the opinion that a dog carried on the bosom of a diseased
person absorbed the disease (Jesse, 1866).
Thus, over historical time, a kind of progression occurs from a strong, archaic
belief in the supernatural healing power of certain animals, such as dogs, to
increasingly vague and superstitious folk practices in which the special “spiritual”
qualities of the animal can no longer be discerned, and all that remains is a sort of
“quack” remedy of dubious therapeutic value. In medieval Europe, this trend was
associated with the Church’s vigorous suppression of pre-Christian and unorthodox
religious beliefs and practices. In the year 1231 AD, in an effort to halt the spread
of religious dissent in Europe, the ofﬁce of the Papal Inquisition was created in
order to provide the Church with an instrument for identifying and combating heresy.
Prior to this time, religious and secular authorities had adopted a relatively lenient
attitude to the variety of pagan customs and beliefs that abounded locally throughout
Europe. The Inquisition systematically rooted them out and obliterated them. Ancient
nature cults, and rituals connected with pre-Christian deities or sacred groves, trees,
streams and wells, were ruthlessly extirpated. Even the harmless cult of St. Guinefort
was the object of persecution. A Dominican friar, Stephen of Bourbon, had the dead
dog disinterred, and the sacred grove cut down and burnt, along with the remains of
the faithful greyhound. An edict was also passed making it a crime for anyone to visit
the place in future (Schmitt, 1983).
Animal-assisted interventions in historical perspective 23
Although the picture is greatly distorted by the Inquisition’s peculiar methods of
obtaining and recording evidence, it appears that the so-called “witch craze” that
swept through Europe between the ﬁfteenth and seventeenth centuries originated as
an attack on local folk healers or cunning folk; the last degenerate practitioners of
archaic shamanism (Briggs, 1996; Serpell, 2002). According to the establishment
view, not only did these medieval witches consort with the Devil in animal form, they
also possessed the deﬁnitively shamanic ability to transform both themselves and
others into animals (Cohn, 1975). In Britain and Scandinavia, witches were also
believed to possess supernatural “imps” or “familiars” most of which appeared in
animal form. In fact, judging from the evidence presented in contemporary pamphlets
and trial records, the majority of these “familiars” belonged to species we nowadays
keep as pets: dogs, cats, cage birds, mice, rats, ferrets, and so on (Ewen, 1933;
Serpell, 2002; Thomas, 1971). In other words, close association or afﬁnity with
animals, once a sign of shamanic power or budding sainthood, became instead
a symptom of diabolism. Animal companions still retained a certain “otherworldly”
quality in the popular imagination of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but
mainly as potential instruments of maleﬁcium—the power to harm others by
All of these trends also reﬂected the marked medieval tendency to impose a rigid
separation between human and non-human animals; a tendency that was reinforced
by ideals of human conduct that emphasized self-control, civility and chastity, while
at the same time rejecting what were then viewed as animal-like attributes, such as
impulsiveness, coarseness and licentiousness (Elias, 1994; Salisbury, 1994; Serpell,
2.5 Animals as agents of socialization
The close of the seventeenth century, and the dawn of the so-called “Age of
Enlightenment,” brought with them certain changes in the public perception of
animals that have been thoroughly documented by historians of the early modern
period (e.g. Maehle, 1994; Thomas, 1983). These changes included a gradual increase
in sympathetic attitudes to animals and nature, and a gradual decline in the
anthropocentric attitudes that so characterized the medieval and Renaissance periods
(Salisbury, 1994). The perception of wild animals and wilderness as threatening to
human survival also decreased in prevalence, while the practice of pet-keeping
expanded out of the aristocracy and into the newly emergent, urban middle classes.
This change in animal-related attitudes and behavior can be plausibly attributed, at
least in part, to the steady migration of Europeans out of rural areas and into towns
and cities at this time. This rural exodus helped to distance growing sectors of the
population from any direct involvement in the consumptive exploitation of animals,
and removed the need for value systems designed to legitimize or reinforce such
practices (Serpell, 1996; Serpell and Paul, 1994; Thomas, 1983).
The notion that nurturing relationships with animals could serve a socializing
function, especially for children, also surfaced at about this time. Writing in 1699,
24 Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy
John Locke advocated giving children “dogs, squirrels, birds or any such things”
to look after as a means of encouraging them to develop tender feelings and
a sense of responsibility for others (Locke, 1699, p. 154). Deriving their authority
from the works of John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes, many eighteenth-century
reformers believed that children could learn to reﬂect on, and control, their own
innately beastlike characteristics through the act of caring for and controlling real
animals (Myers, 1998). Compassion and concern for animal welfare also became
one of the favorite didactic themes of children’s literature during the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, where its clear purpose was to inculcate an ethic of
kindness and gentility, particularly in male children (Grier, 1999; Ritvo, 1987;
In the late eighteenth century, theories concerning the socializing inﬂuence of
animal companionship also began to be applied to the treatment of the mentally ill.
The earliest well-documented experiment in this area took place in England at The
York Retreat, the brainchild of a progressive Quaker called William Tuke. The York
Retreat employed treatment methods that were exceptionally enlightened when
compared with those which existed in other mental institutions of the day. Inmates
were permitted to wear their own clothing, and they were encouraged to engage in
handicrafts, to write, and to read books. They were also allowed to wander freely
around the Retreat’s courtyards and gardens that were stocked with various small
domestic animals. In his Description of the Retreat (1813, p. 96), Samuel Tuke, the
founder’s grandson, described how the internal courtyards of the Retreat were
supplied “with a number of animals; such as rabbits, sea-gulls, hawks, and poultry.
These creatures are generally very familiar with the patients: and it is believed they
are not only the means of innocent pleasure; but that the intercourse with them,
sometimes tends to awaken the social and benevolent feelings.”
During the nineteenth century, pet animals became increasingly common features
of mental institutions in England and elsewhere. For example, in a highly critical
report on the appalling conditions endured by the inmates of Bethlem Hospital
during the 1830s, the British Charity Commissioners suggested that the grounds of
lunatic asylums “should be stocked with sheep, hares, a monkey, or some other
domestic or social animals” to create a more pleasing and less prison-like atmo-
sphere. Such recommendations were evidently taken seriously. According to an
article published in the Illustrated London News of 1860, the women’s’ ward at the
Bethlem Hospital was by that time “cheerfully lighted, and enlivened with prints
and busts, with aviaries and pet animals,” while in the men’s ward the same
fondness was manifested “for pet birds and animals, cats, canaries, squirrels,
greyhounds &c.[some patients] pace the long gallery incessantly, pouring out their
woes to those who listen to them, or, if there be none to listen, to the dogs and cats”
(cited in Allderidge, 1991).
The beneﬁcial effects of animal companionship also appear to have been recog-
nized as serving a therapeutic role in the treatment of physical ailments during this
period. In her Notes on Nursing (1880), for instance, Florence Nightingale observes
that a small pet “is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases
Animal-assisted interventions in historical perspective 25
2.6 Animals and psychotherapy
Despite the apparent success of nineteenth-century experiments in animal-assisted
institutional care, the advent of scientiﬁc medicine largely eliminated animals from
hospital settings by the early decades of the twentieth century (Allderidge, 1991).
For the following 50 years, virtually the only medical contexts in which animals are
mentioned are those concerned with zoonotic disease and public health, or as
symbolic referents in psychoanalytic theories concerning the origins of mental
Sigmund Freud’s ideas concerning the origins of neurosis tended to reiterate the
Hobbesian idea of mankind’s inherently beastlike nature (Myers, 1998). According to
Freud, infants and young children are essentially similar to animals, insofar as they
are ruled by instinctive cravings or impulses organized around basic biological
functions such as eating, excreting, sexuality, and self-preservation. Freud referred to
this basic, animal aspect of human nature as the “Id.” As children mature, their adult
caregivers “tame” or socialize them by instilling fear or guilt whenever the child acts
too impulsively in response to these inner drives. Children, in turn, respond to this
external pressure to conform by repressing these urges from consciousness. Mental
illness results, or so Freud maintained, when these bottled-up animal drives ﬁnd no
healthy or creative outlet in later life, and erupt uncontrollably into consciousness
Freud interpreted the recurrent animal images that surfaced in his patients’ dreams
and “free associations” as metaphorical devices by means of which people disguise
unacceptable thoughts or feelings. “Wild beasts,” he argued, “represent passionate
impulses of which the dreamer is afraid, whether they are his own or those of other
people” (Freud, 1959, p. 410). Because these beastly thoughts and impulses are
profoundly threatening to the “Ego,” they are locked away in dark corners of the
subconscious where they can be safely ignored, at least during a person’s waking
hours. To Freud and his followers, the aim of psychoanalysis was to unmask these
frightening denizens of the unconscious mind, reveal their true natures, and thus,
effectively, to neutralize them (Serpell, 2000).
Freud’s concept of the “Id” as a sort of basic, animal “essence” in human nature
bears more than a superﬁcial resemblance to animistic and shamanistic ideas con-
cerning animal souls and guardian spirits, and the “inner” or spiritual origins of ill-
health (Serpell, 2000). In the works of Carl Jung, particularly his discussions of
mythological archetypes in dreams and visions, and his concept of the “Collective
Unconscious,” this resemblance becomes more or less explicit (Cook, 1987). It is also
echoed in the writings of Boris Levinson, the founder of “pet-facilitated therapy.” In
his book Pets and Human Development, Levinson states that:
One of the chief reasons for man’s present difﬁculties is his inability to come to terms
with his inner self and to harmonize his culture with his membership in the world of
nature. Rational man has become alienated from himself by refusing to face his
irrational self, his own past as personiﬁed by animals.
26 Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy
The solution to this growing sense of alienation was, according to Levinson, to
restore a healing connection with our own, unconscious animal natures by estab-
lishing positive relationships with real animals, such as dogs, cats and other pets. He
argued that pets represent “a half-way station on the road back to emotional well-
being” (Levinson, 1969, p. xiv) and that “we need animals as allies to reinforce our
inner selves” (Levinson, 1972, pp. 28–29). Levinson went beyond the Freudian idea
that animals were essentially a symbolic disguise for things we are afraid to confront
in the ﬂesh to arguing that relations with animals played such a prominent role in
human evolution that they have now become integral to our psychological well-being
(Levinson, 1972, p. 15).
2.7 Animals, relaxation, and social support
During the last 20 years, and at least partly in response to the skepticism of the
medical establishment, the theoretical emphasis has shifted away from these rela-
tively metaphysical ideas about animals as psycho-spiritual mediators, toward more
prosaic, scientiﬁcally “respectable” explanations for the apparent therapeutic beneﬁts
of animal companionship (Serpell, 2000). The primary catalyst for this change of
emphasis was a single, ground-breaking study of 92 outpatients from a cardiac care
unit who, statistically speaking, were found to live longer if they were pet owners
(Friedmann et al., 1980). This ﬁnding prompted a whole series of other health-related
studies (see Anderson et al., 1992; Friedmann et al., 2000; Garrity and Stallones,
1998), as well as stimulating a lot of discussion concerning the possible mechanism(s)
responsible for the apparent salutary effects of pet ownership. Of these, at least two
have stood the test of time. According to the ﬁrst, animals are able to induce an
immediate, physiologically de-arousing state of relaxation simply by attracting and
holding our attention (Katcher et al., 1983). According to the second, companion
animals are capable of providing people with a form of stress-reducing or stress-
buffering social support (McNicholas and Collis, 1995; Serpell, 1996; Siegel, 1990).
Although the de-arousing effects of animal contact have been demonstrated by
a considerable number of recent studies, little evidence exists at present that these
effects are responsible for more than transient or short-term improvements in phys-
iological parameters, such as heart rate and blood pressure (Friedman, 1995). In
contrast, the concept of pets serving as sources of social support seems to offer
a relatively convincing explanation for the more long-term beneﬁts of animal
Cobb (1976) deﬁned social support as “information leading the subject to believe
that he is cared for and loved, esteemed, and a member of a network of mutual
obligations.” More recent authors, however, have tended to distinguish between
“perceived social support” and “social network” characteristics. The former repre-
sents a largely qualitative description of a person’s level of satisfaction with the
support he or she receives from particular social relationships, while the latter is
a more quantitative measure incorporating the number, frequency and type of
a person’s overall social interactions (Eriksen, 1994). However we choose to deﬁne it,
Animal-assisted interventions in historical perspective 27
the importance of social support to human well-being has been acknowledged
implicitly throughout history. Loneliness—the absence of social support—has always
been viewed as such a painful and unpleasant sensation that, since time immemorial,
societies have used solitary conﬁnement, exile and social ostracism as methods of
punishment. The autobiographical accounts of religious hermits, castaways and
prisoners of war provide a clear picture of the psychological effects of social isolation.
Most describe feelings equivalent to physical torture which increase gradually to
a peak before declining, often quite sharply. This decrease in pain is generally
associated with the onset of a state of apathy and despair, sometimes so severe that it
involves complete catatonic withdrawal (Serpell, 1996).
Within the last 10–15 years, an extensive medical literature has emerged con-
ﬁrming a strong, positive link between social support and improved human health and
survival (see Eriksen, 1994; Esterling et al., 1994; House et al., 1988; Sherbourne
et al., 1992; Vilhjalmsson, 1993). The precise mechanisms underlying these life-
saving effects of social support are still the subject of some debate, but most
authorities appear now to agree that the principal beneﬁts arise from the capacity of
supportive social relationships to buffer or ameliorate the deleterious health effects
of prolonged or chronic life stress (Ader et al., 1995). In theory, this salutory effect
of social support should apply to any positive social relationship; any relationship in
which a person feels cared for,loved or esteemed. As far as the vast majority of
medical researchers and practitioners are concerned, however, the only relationships
that are assumed to matter are those that exist between closely afﬁliated persons—
friends, marital partners, immediate family members, and so on. Despite the growing
evidence of recent anthrozoological research, the notion that animal companions
might also contribute socially to human health has still received very limited medical
recognition (Serpell, 1996).
For most of human history, animals have occupied a central position in theories
concerning the ontology and treatment of sickness and disease. Offended animal
spirits were often believed to be the source of illness, injury or misfortune, but, at the
same time, the assistance of animal guardian spirits—either one’s own or those
belonging to a “medicine man” or shaman—could also be called upon to mediate in
the process of healing such afﬂictions.
Although such ideas survived here and there into the modern era, the spread of
anthropocentric and monotheistic belief systems during the last 1–2 thousand years
virtually annihilated animist belief in the supernatural power of animals and animal
spirits throughout much of the world. In Europe during the Middle Ages, the Christian
Church actively persecuted animist believers, branding them as witches and heretics,
and identifying their “familiar spirits” with the Devil and his minions in animal form.
During the period of the “Enlightenment,” the idea that pet animals could serve
a socializing function for children and the mentally ill became popular, and by the
nineteenth century the introduction of animals to institutional care facilities was
28 Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy
widespread. However, these early and preliminary experiments in animal-assisted
therapy were soon displaced by the rise of scientiﬁc medicine during the early part of
the twentieth century. Animals continued to play a somewhat negative symbolic role
in the development of psychoanalytic theories concerning the origins of mental
illness, but no further medical discussion of their value as therapeutic adjuncts
occurred until the late 1960s and 1970s when such ideas resurfaced in the writings of
the inﬂuential child psychotherapist Boris Levinson.
Recent interest in the potential medical value of animal companionship was
largely initiated by a single study that appeared to demonstrate life-prolonging effects
of pet ownership among heart-attack sufferers. This study has since prompted many
others, most of which have demonstrated either short-term, relaxing effects of animal
contact, or long-term health improvements consistent with a view of companion
animals as sources of social support. Despite these ﬁndings, the positive therapeutic
value of animal companionship continues to receive little recognition in mainstream
medical literature, and, as a ﬁeld of research, it is grossly under-supported by
government funding agencies.
Considered in retrospect, it is difﬁcult to escape the conclusion that the current
inability or unwillingness of the medical establishment to address this topic seriously
is a legacy of the same anthropocentrism that has dominated European and Western
thinking since the Middle Ages (Serpell, 2005). Hopefully, with the gradual demise of
this old-fashioned and prejudiced mindset, we can return to a more holistic and open-
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