Animals as Healers

Animals have an incredible ability to improve our overall health and well-being. "Sometimes the most gifted healers are not our medical and mental health professionals; they are the animals we love."

As an eight year old child, I recall looking into the deep brown eyes of Heather, our family’s Shetland Sheep dog, and telling her how sad I was that my grandfather had passed away. Heather knew we were hurting and took time to comfort every member of our family making regular rounds to each of us. My younger brother would lay with his head on her belly, whispering to her, and knowing our dog cared and listened. Heather was my first alternative healer. 

“Spike always knew who needed him the most, and would go to that person” says Seton Coastside Social Services Assistant Sandy Osher referring to a beloved courtyard kitty who recently passed away. She recalls one resident who would go into the courtyard everyday to practice pushing a wheelchair. Spike looked forward to this daily event, and jumped into the chair for a ride each time to the delight of the resident. 

While stroking Angel, a large feline adopted with Spike from the Peninsula Humane Society, Seton Chaplain Larry Looby says animals are not only good for the residents, but also staff and visitors. “The animals allow a person to take their minds off themselves. For a short time we are focused on the animal, and forget about our aches and pains. There’s something very comforting about them.”

It’s no surprise to learn that petting an animal lowers our blood pressure and releases our feel good hormones which include serotonin while reducing our stress hormone cortisol. Many modern anti-depressants work to regulate our serotonin. Nobody is suggesting that pets replace anti-depressants, but they might play a key role in curing depression.

A 10 year study of 4500 people by Adnan Qureshi, professor of neurosurgery and neurology at University of Minnesota concluded that people who own a cat are 40% less likely to die from heart attacks.  

It’s not just cats, dogs and birds that make good healers. Getting people with dementia to eat becomes problematic since they are often up wandering, and unable to concentrate. In a research study out of Purdue, tanks of colorful fish helped people with Alzheimer’s eat about 20% more food each day. This decreased the amount of supplements they needed, and improved their nutrition since it is better to get nutrients from food. The researchers found that their subjects enjoyed watching the tanks and there was a decrease in some of the negative behaviors such as wandering or aggression. 

My and eventually had to be placed in a skilled nursing facility where my mother visited her every day. Mom had another beautiful Shetland Sheep dog named Spirit. She had Spirit certified as a pet therapy dog so she could bring him along to the delight of my grandmother and the other residents. Even though my grandmother is gone, Mom still visits the facility with her newest dog so residents can have the benefit of pet therapy. 

As a Girl Scout leader when my daughter was in middle school, hearing this story inspired one of the girls in my troop, Laura Dekker, to have her dog, Tiffany, certified in pet therapy. Our troop “adopted” Three Bells of Montara an assisted living facility for seniors; we regularly visited, sang, entertained, held parties and brought our honorary troop member, Tiffany the Therapy Dog, along where she was a big hit for several years. Dekker said, "Having my dog certified as a pet therapy was one of the highlights of my Girl Scout work. Being able to see the smiles and happiness she gave to the community of Three Bells put warmth in my heart and made me realize just how much any person, young or old, needs a companion in life. When I could give just five minutes of happiness to other people by bringing Tiffany around, it was a great day." 

There’s a very special place where people can receive hippotherapy. No, that’s not therapy with a hippopotamus. It comes from the Greek word “hippos” which means horse. Hippotherapy or Equine Facilitated Therapy is offered just over the hill at the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy (NCEFT) in Woodside, California. I volunteer for Sutter Visiting Nurses Association & Hospice and was lucky enough to participate in some special days that were offered at NCEFT to grieving children who had lost somebody very close to them. 

Therapy horses are particularly gentle and patient, and receive special training. Rather than a saddle, the horse has a blanket and a surcingle - a fleece or foam pad with gripping handles strapped around the belly which allows the rider to experience the warmth radiating from the animal’s body. 

A handler accompanies each rider and helps them onto the animal after first grooming the horse with brushes. Equine facilitated therapy is used for persons with autism, and disabilities of neuromuscular control disorders including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, speech and language disorders, traumatic brain injuries, and stroke. NCEFT is partnered with the Palo Alto Veteran’s Administration’s Poly-trauma Transitional Rehab Program to provide therapy for active duty personnel and returning veterans; this work for injured vets is done without public funds, and is entirely supported by donations. 

The children in our program played Simon Says on the back of the horse. The commands included sitting sideways on the horse, sitting backwards, laying on the horse, thanking the horse and eventually Simon said to whisper a secret to the horse about their loved one who died, and to share something important with the horse. 

Jennifer Wilson, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and former Bereavement Program Coordinator at Sutter VNA & Hospice facilitated the day’s activities. “The horses are magical in their ability to bring healing to others”, says Wilson. 

Grief, depression, dementia, autism, stroke, newly acquired disabilities – we need to think about all of these in broader, more holistic ways. As caring people, we want to be there for those we love. It takes open-mindedness and perhaps a dose of humility to realize that perhaps the most significant healer in a given situation may have fur, feathers, or fins. Sure, we can do our part, but the real magic might be in that soft furry head with the big liquid eyes who brings a special kind of healing love into the equation. 

We have a new family dog now. She is a mixed breed we call Duppy. My son recently declared she is his soul mate. Looking into her brown eyes, it is obvious she understands and cares when any one of us are suffering. When one of us is sick, Duppy refuses to leave our side. I hope to train her to be a pet therapy dog eventually so her career as a healer will really shine. Sometimes the most gifted healers are not our medical and mental health professionals; they are the animals we love.    

Do you have a favorite animal story? Tell us in the comments.   

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Laura C. Strom June 07, 2011 at 04:54 PM
The point about pheromones is an excellent one. Dogs are well known for their ability to smell and to track. Stories abound of brave acts that animals do for humans. Your experience with the horse sounds very powerful. I know that people who work with horses often feel almost a spiritual connection to them. Horses are certainly an important part of Native American spirituality. When I was at the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy, a number of people talked about how the therapy horses seem to instinctively know what the children or wounded vets need. Thinking about animals as gifted healers in their own right is a fascinating topic that touches many of us. Thanks for sharing your experience, Patrice!
Karin Dickinson June 08, 2011 at 03:37 AM
Whenever I'm sick, our sweet pup sticks by my side and keeps me safe until I'm well. She knows when I'm down, when I need her the most, and she's always there for me. Our animals are some of the best healers. <3
wesley June 08, 2011 at 03:57 AM
I'v read several studies on the ability of cats and dogs to have beneficial effects on the health of humans. Its extremely interesting and a great excuse to have a pet. There are many great stories about how therapy animals can benefit special needs patients. And thinking of your mother doing such a sweet thing for others makes me smile. =-) What a great article. Now I have to go look this stuff up for fun.
Laura C. Strom June 08, 2011 at 03:59 AM
Awww...that's so nice! Thank you for sharing =).
Laura C. Strom June 08, 2011 at 04:04 AM
I love it when science proves stuff that we already know, like pets are good for us! This article didn't really touch on working animals like hearing dogs, guide dogs/mini horses, mental health dogs, etc. That's a whole additional fascinating topic. I knew of a dog who was specially trained to know when its owner was beginning to have a panic attack and would intervene. Very interesting stuff! Thanks for the comment, Wes!


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