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The Healing Power of Animals

Next time you feel stressed out or overwhelmed by your life and all the challenges you face, take a dog for a walk, stroke a cat, talk to a budgie or watch a goldfish — and let nature and the animals work their power. Ellen Urbani Hiltebrande, as quoted in Susan Chernak McElroy's book "Animals as Guides for the Soul", describes this power as God's angels wearing fur:

"Cali teaches me every day that there are forces greater than medicine and technology… She has been the guardian of not only my physical body but also my soul. In times of loneliness and fear she has again and again offered herself wholeheartedly and unselfishly to me… I have had the opportunity to share my soul with a wise and generous teacher. When I needed it most, God sent me an angel disguised in fur to remind me of the power of love"

There are books full of personal testaments to the healing power of animals such as the above. Many of us can recount our own similar experiences with an important animal in our lives; heart-warming stories of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" variety when we felt a connection, a love, and a source of courage we could not quite explain.

But do we realise how much of an impact animals can have upon our everyday lives? Do we realise the full potential that such a partnership can bring to us when we feel most vulnerable? While stories are powerful, healing and inspirational, there is also a growing body of research which confirms and reinforces the messages underlying these stories. The mental health community also recognises growing areas of practice, which build the healing power of animals into the human service professions.

So what does this research say?

Firstly, having an animal in your life is good for your physical health. It is now a well proven fact that having an animal in our life can mean fewer trips to the doctor, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and decreases the chance of dying from a heart attack.

Secondly, animals are beneficial for child development. Many parents add a four legged friend to the family believing this will be good for the children. For the most part they are right. Children who have contact with animals tend to have higher self esteem, be more involved in activities such as sports, hobbies, clubs or chores, and develop more nurturing behavior. They also tend to be more empathetic towards both animals and people. Not that I'm suggesting everyone rush out tomorrow and buy Johnny a dog, without first considering the financial and time commitments involved. However, with careful planning, selection and consideration of individual circumstances, adding an animal to your family can provide your children with valuable opportunities to learn about life, responsibility and to nurture and care for others.

Animals are good for seniors too. Pet-owning seniors tend to go to the doctor less, cope better with stress, are more active and less lonely.

So why is it that being around animals is so good for us? Why can I still not read "Old Yeller" or "My Friend Flicka" without the tears welling up? The answer may be biophilia. 'Bio-what' you say? Biophilia is a hypothesis, proposed by anthropologist Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence and entomologist E.O. Wilson, winner of two Pulitzer prizes. The term comes from the Greek words for life (bio) and for loving (phil). According to biophilia, all humans have a biologically based attunement to animals and nature. Because we evolved in nature alongside animals we have been shaped to pay attention to them. As hunter gatherers we learned to observe animals. We sought messages from them about the safety of our environment. If they are calm, then all is well. Biophilia suggests that it is because of this genetic attunement that our brains function better and our nervous systems relax when we are around animals.

While animals can enhance our physical and emotional health at any time, this bond is particularly powerful when we are feeling vulnerable, stressed or are facing challenge, loss or major change in our lives, as the following quote from Susan Chernak McElroy's book Animals as Teachers and Healers expresses:

"In my early twenties, after a suicide attempt, I was under treatment for depression. For two years I received shock treatment and extensive medication, and I never left the house except to visit the therapist. …(Sunshine) was my only companion during those years, and the only living being that could connect with me….I held her, hugged her, hummed, and whispered to her, and cried into her fur…when it seemed the whole world slept on without me….she'd keep watch with me…She was the only truly safe being in my world. I'm in my forties now. Years of good health and deep faith have given me what I couldn't imagine at twenty. Sunshine left us a long time ago. Maybe she didn't heal me but she saved me so that with time and strength, I could heal myself."

Again research confirms the incredible healing power of an animal's love and support expressed by Sunshine's human companion: AIDS patients with pets have less depression and reduced stress. Their pets are a major source of support and increase their perception in their ability to cope. Childen with autism who own pets have more prosocial behaviors and less autistic behaviors such as self-absorption. And the companionship of an animal can help children adjust better to the serious illness and death of a parent. It is at times like these that we may turn to a counsellor or other member of the helping professions for support. It is not hard to see that bringing animals into these professions could enhance growth and healing. The Delta Society, an organisation committed to exploring and enhancing human animal interactions, calls this Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), defined as "goal directed intervention in which an animal … is an integral part of the treatment process…designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning". Many practitioners and programs - from therapeutic riding, to pet visitation programs in hospitals - are finding that animals can often reach and help a person in ways we human practitioners are only beginning to understand.

"In their innocence and wisdom, in their connection to the earth and its most ancient rhythms, animals show us a way back to a home they have never left"— Susan Chernak McElroy

© Sue McIntosh, MA, CCC, 2001

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