They’ve been called angels who’ve come down to Earth to help us, best friends, seeing eyes, family members—even a reason to live. For those who have pets the love and companionship they supply is something few can deny.
Interacting with, petting, and caring for animals has been shown to release oxytocin in the bloodstream, the feel good hormone. Pets have been said to absorb and disperse negativity in a person's environment. Can anyone argue that they haven’t felt better after hugging their dog or cat? A friend who got a dog right after a terrible break up said, “Its weird. I’m trying to be sad about losing the relationship but this dog is so happy I can’t feel sorry for myself.”
Animals are being used more often as agents of emotional and psychological healing. It’s not just that they can be good at cuddling— they are good at helping us heal our minds. Today a “support animal” is common. Animals are registered to go with those suffering from trauma into public spaces to provide an “attachment object”—a being we are attached to that provides a sense of safety and security.
By now most of us have seen the plethora of Youtube videos made by military personnel who bonded with a dog in war torn areas. The relationship with the dogs help soldiers cope with the horrors of war. Many of these bonds are so strong that soldiers find ways to bring their dogs back to the states. Dogs are also being used to treat military veterans for PTSD, panic attacks, depression, and loneliness after wars. As one troubled solider said after getting a therapy dog, "I wouldn't be here without my dog."
Dogs and cats are the obviously the most popular candidates, but many animals can provide this sense of well-being to their owners. One friend I have says that reptiles are his passion. “I forget all my problems when I’m with them.” He has snakes, lizards and other reptiles in his home. He goes out to the desert regularly to find his scaly friends under rocks and in hidden nooks.
I even had a roommate who fawned over his pet goldfish, “Pat.” (Try to stay with me here). Pat would come to the side of the tank and stare at my roommate when he got home. It was, well, a little weird. The day Pat died I was taken aback. I thought my roommate had always sort of faked his loving attachment to the tiny fish as a kind of joke. It wasn’t. He was visibly shaken by the loss.
In twelve step recovery the recommendation for healing relationship issues is to first get a plant. If the plant doesn’t die the addict can get a pet. If they can handle having a pet, they can then consider dating.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is a form of therapy utilizing horses. “Therapeutic Riding” is used to mentally and physically stimulate disabled persons and help them improve their lives through increased balance and coordination, raising self-confidence, and a greater feeling of freedom and independence.
Using dogs in clinical settings has been shown to reduce stress, increase rapport, help clients become more cognizant of emotional reactions, and support resiliency in individual and group sessions. Counselors who specialize in working with children or individuals with disabilities find that dogs can be used in building rapport, working on specific goals, physical skills, and social interactions. People who feel ostracized due to sexual preferences, religious or ethnic prejudices, etc., often find dogs to be a form of love, attention, and acceptance that is not widely available to them.
The elderly are often subject to isolation, depression, anxiety, and loss of purpose in our culture. Dogs and cats brought into nursing homes have been shown to lower blood pressure, alleviate depression and anxiety, increase socialization, and give elderly people a sense of meaning in caring for the animals. Kittens in need of care have been brought into the Catalina Springs Memory Care facility for elderly people with dementia. Caring for the kittens has helped patients improve their memory, uplift their mood, and give them a sense of purpose. One man, who rarely interacted or left his room, now feeds and cares for the kittens. He then puts one under each arm and says, "Its time for a walk."
Pets are also used in hospitals by trained personnel to combat fatigue, isolation, and depression. Hospitals are now allowing a patient’s pet from home to visit as a way of increasing their morale.
Author Eckhart Tolle says that when a pet looks at you it is not thinking. It is completely accepting. This acceptance allows you to access the deepest part of you—which is a place of love and joy normally covered over by the negative thinking of the mind.
Some people have closer relationships with their pets than with other humans. I’ve heard people say that when their dog died they grieved more than when some family members had passed away. The “queen of mean,” Leona Helmsley, famously left her beloved dog “Trouble” twelve million dollars. Apparently the dog provided a form of love Miss Helmsley could only get from the four-legged friend.
How is your animal love these days? If you don’t want to own pets, there are ways to foster animals looking for a home, volunteer with pets, and make animals a part of your mental / emotional well being.
I recently saw a bumper sticker for a pet rescue center. The sticker was of a paw. On the paw it said, "Who Rescues Who?"
Below, some military personnel get a helping paw: