“A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick…” – Florence Nightingale (1859)
We live in a world where good news is often outshone by bad.
Every day, thousands of people work to make this world a better place. Such things as courage and self-sacrifice, however, are inherent not only in people; also in our smaller, four-legged and furry friends, and sometimes not so furry friends. Animals have pretty much no reason to like us.
Sure, there are a few instances where the relationship between man and beast is beneficial to them.
Cats, for example, live a pretty cushy life because they were smart enough to dominate the human race (is that not how it went down?). By and large, though, with all the various tragic things that humans do to animals in the name of “progress,” it makes little sense that the animal kingdom is as sweet to humanity as it is.
Yet, they are. There have been many occasions where animals have gone above and beyond to help the people surrounding them.
Most children love animals. I love all animals. Animals allow me to feel my feelings.
Animals play a major role in the human experience. My father knew this long before AAT – Assisted Animal Therapy was “a thing.” Since the day I was born I have had animals and my father created animal therapy in my life. He loved animals more than people and he knew their healing gifts. He knew animals could feel our feelings.
Al’s favorite dog was a German Shepherd.
We had a wonderful German Shepherd named Baron when I first came to live with Al and Dotti. Baron followed close behind me most days. When Dotti would go on her rampages she would lock the dogs in the back yard and you could hear them barking at the door and windows.
A year later Al brought home a charming half-breed of German Shepherd and Collie named Charlie.
George was playing on the street with Charlie when suddenly a truck rushed onto the pavement at high-speed, racing straight towards George.
Charlie instantly pushed George aside and took the brunt of the blow from the advancing truck. Charlie was thrown onto the road, and the truck, seeming to want to escape from the scene, ran down poor Charlie one more time. Al was home and rushed Charlie to his emergency pet hospital.
The brave dog miraculously survived, however he received several internal injuries, and his legs and spine were broken.
Thankfully, my fathers timely veterinary care saved Charlie from death, however, he had to undergo lengthy treatment and rehabilitation.
Cats, dogs, fish, goats, lizards, birds, horses, chickens, llamas, pigs, rabbits, turtles were all a part of my life and my father knew how to add healing to a life with animals.
We learn so much from animals, and most of us may not realize how much they actually help us. Animals can help us emotionally and psychologically. It is not a new idea to have animals be a part of the mental healing process for human patients in therapy.
What is rather new and is growing is the widespread acceptance and volunteerism that follows Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) nowadays. AAT has roots that trace all the way back to the ancient Greeks. As history would have it, they were the first to use animals, specifically horses, to lift the spirits of the severely ill.
Then, in the 1600s, physicians were reported to have been using horses to improve the mental and physical health of their patients.
Farm animals were also used in the 1940s by the American Red Cross on a farm where veterans suffering from injury or illness could take care of the animals to further their recovery.
It was said that working with the farm animals helped the veterans put their minds on something besides war and other associated traumas.
Pet animals were first used for therapeutic use in medieval Belgium.
Interestingly enough, in this Belgian society, animals and humans were rehabilitated together.
The animals were used for the humans’ therapy.
It’s likely that interacting with humans provided the animals with a companionship that mirrored what they could offer. In reaction to practices such as this, animal therapy became a hot topic in academia.
In the 1800s, Florence Nightingale observed that small pets reduced the levels of anxiety and stress in adult and youth psychiatric patients.
This began a wave of informal experiments involving animal interaction with humans to produce a calming effect on patients suffering from anxiety.
An Austrian Nobel laureate in Physiology and a psychologist were so intrigued by the connection between animals and humans that they developed an idea called the Human-Animal Bond.
This theory described how humans need interaction with animals and nature to normalize the busyness of daily life.
Dr. Sigmund Freud even used his pet pup in his practice. He believed his dog could tell the truest character in a human. The dog would remain close to patients who were free from stress and tension, and remain on the other side of the room from those who were not. Freud also used his dog to calm young patients with anxiety. During the 1960s, the first formal research involving animal therapy began.
I know my father followed this research.
Dr. Boris Levinson found that his dog had a positive effect on mentally impaired young patients.
Specifically, he discovered that these patients were more comfortable and likely to socialize with his dog than with other humans.
It wasn’t until Freud’s findings were translated and published years after his death that Levinson’s findings were considered valid.
This demonstrates the controversy surrounding the topic of formalized animal therapy and makes it even more impressive that today it is so extensive.
The noticeable changes in human behavior when interacting with animals is the main reason why AAT has become such an integral part of today’s therapeutic practices.
Pets have had a positive effect on my emotional and mental health. And yes, animals can help you outside of clinical therapy.
Studies show that owning a pet can help you live a happier, healthier and longer life. I am an absolute believer of this because of first hand experience.
Animals allow me to feel my feelings.
Dogs, specifically, have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease in their loving owners. For those who had suffered a heart attack, owning a cat or a dog decreased the risk of enduring another heart attack.
Additionally, owners were alive for at least a year after the heart attack, regardless of the severity. So it would seem that animals know the way to our hearts.
Pets are also especially helpful to the elderly, who may be struggling with feelings of depression and loneliness. Pets ease aggression presented by those with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
They also provide the elderly with companionship and someone to take care of, reducing feelings of helplessness that is so common among the old and sick.
Furthermore, pets are great for teaching children responsibility. In 1989, the Delta Society, a group focused on animal education, invented a certification program to ensure the proficiency and success of animals providing AAT.
More certifications have since popped up, and the basics remain those laid out by the Delta Society.
Because many children, teens and adults enjoy working with animals, animal-assisted therapy can be particularly beneficial for individuals who are resistant to treatment or have difficulty accessing their emotions or expressing themselves in talk therapy. Animals speak with their bodies, however.
Modern Dog Magazine puts it this way, “Although dogs do use sounds and signals, much of the information that they send is through their body language, specifically their facial expressions and body postures.” Children don’t have to talk to communicate with animals. And that’s probably part of what creates the draw. Or perhaps it’s that the children can talk in whatever way they prefer, and the animals don’t talk back.
National Geographic says that after the Sandy Hook Shootings, “One boy confided in the gentle-faced golden retriever about exactly what happened in his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day—which his parents said was more than he’d been able to share with them.”
I grew up around animals big and small. Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my woes to my furry friends.
My animals have often been my therapists. They made me feel like I was their favorite person, like every word I said mattered. Whether I was having trouble with family, feelings of abuse, friends, health, life, school, or work, my animals listened. My dogs licked my face when I cried, and they snuggled close and slept with me. My cats cuddled close. My horses nuzzled me and let me bury my face into their side and hang on them and hug then as I sobbed.
As a child with lots of anxiety, I needed all my animals so I could feel my feelings.
Even today, I find endless comfort in animals. I have two cats currently, Aimee and Chloe and they bring so much life into our home.
I got to pet a super soft koala bear once a wild life park. I cried.
I’m so grateful for all of the lessons animals have taught me through the years, and all of the heartfelt connections I’ve been able to make.
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” –Anatole France
What harsh truths do you prefer to ignore?