This blog post is part of a series exploring the value and benefits of spending time with horses and other animals, including within a therapeutic environment. See our previous post: Why Horses for an introduction to, and overview of what to expect from, this series. 

Next time you feel stressed out or overwhelmed by your life and all the challenges you face, take a dog for a walk, cuddle a cat, talk to a horse 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 pony, 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.

Animals can even be good for our marriages!
One study showed that couples with a dog at home tended to have a better relationship with each other.

While most of the studies indicate that the benefits are most likely to arise when there is a positive relationship between the person and the animal, other studies have show that we can be positively impacted by simply being in the presence of an animal, even one we don’t know and don’t interact with.  In one study children were asked to read aloud in front of an audience.  When a friendly dog was present, the children’s stress levels reduced significantly.

The presence of an animal can also lead to us treating each other more kindly, and seeing each other more positively. For example, studies have shown that people in a wheelchair or with a disability who are accompanies by a dog have significantly more positive social interactions than those without a dog. Instead of ignoring or avoiding them, other people are more likely to approach and socialize with them.  

Animals can even make us smarter!
Studies have explored how animals can help facilitate language acquisition and enhance verbal skills in young children, and can stimulate and motivate cognitive development.

During Times of Challenge

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.  Just a few examples:

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.

Children with autism who own pets have ‘more pro-social behaviors and less autistic behaviors such as self-absorption’.

Other studies have shown that animals can also act as a buffer variable in a child’s traumatic experience including war and sexual abuse.

Several studies have indicated that companion animals can act as a buffer against depression and can reduce the likelihood of maladaptive behaviours and suicide, motivate individuals to engage in more healthy and constructive activities, and help us gain insight into our emotional experiences illness and behaviour. 

Finally, 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.

Pet partners (formerly 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

 

This has been a very brief review of the available and ever growing body of research into the human animal bond! 
For a more detailed summary (including references) of the research please contact the author at sue@healinghooves.ca or ask a question below.

In our next blog post in this series, understanding the research, we explore three key and supporting theories for WHY the human animal bond is so healing for humans.  We explore how to make sure our interactions are also a positive experience for our animal partners in our post What is the role of the horse in equine therapy, as a part of our series for people getting started or exploring a career in equine and animal assisted therapy.

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