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The Best Therapy? Why, Your Pets, of Course

The mental health benefits that come with our beloved animals.

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Cat snuggles with woman
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When I think of my early childhood, I picture a lonely and insecure girl. I lived for books, watching the Monkees singing troupe on TV, and my weekly horseback riding lessons. At the age of 12, I began taking care of an acquaintance’s backyard mare, Sheba, and my life improved immeasurably.

Whether cleaning stalls, riding or just watching Sheba quietly munch hay, I felt transported. No longer was I focused on my perceived shortcomings; I had found purpose and joy in caring for Sheba. Our bond was empowering and transformative, and it would set the stage for a lifetime of loving — and living with — animals.

It’s no secret that companion animals are good for our mental health. Dogs can help with myriad challenges, from providing much needed companionship to acting as a catalyst for their owners to get more exercise — and meet other friendly dog owners — to helping persons struggling with depression and anxiety disorders. This is good news for the nearly 70 percent of Americans ages 50 to 59 who have pets, as well as for the 60 percent of those 60 to 69, and the 50 percent of those 70 and older.

“Research has shown that owning a pet provides an amazing array of health benefits,” says Jeremy Barron, M.D., medical director of the Beacham Center for Geriatric Medicine at Johns Hopkins. “Simply petting a dog lowers the stress hormone cortisol, while the social interaction between people and their dogs actually increases levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin” (the same hormone that bonds mothers to babies). Interacting with pets can lower our blood pressure and lead to better heart health, and those with pets report lower rates of loneliness.

Service animals — those specifically trained to help humans function independently — can perform many activities for sight- or mobility-impaired owners. These include opening doors, retrieving medication or water, warning of obstacles in their owner’s path, and alerting other people that their owner is in distress. Some animals are even trained to detect cancer or warn of an impending anxiety attack, cardiac event or seizure.

Therapy animals — usually dogs — also receive special training but their main function is to be a source of comfort and to spread happiness. You might see them in schools, retirement and nursing homes, or hospitals, and they are only cleared to go into these environments once they have been through manners and obedience training.

Animal assisted therapy (AAT), in which a specially trained animal is brought in as part of a team that might include registered nurses, nursing assistants, or occupational therapists, has also been shown to be beneficial to individuals with dementia. Among other benefits, it can help improve short-term memory and communication skills.

Emotional support animals, on the other hand, need no specialized training. Dogs and cats are obvious choices, but people also find calming company in rabbits, birds, reptiles, llamas and ponies. These animals are most helpful for people with a variety of anxiety disorders, but they can also be of comfort to people undergoing stressful events.

One friend who recently underwent a bone graft at her dentist’s office was delighted to have the dentist’s dog lie across her lap during the whole procedure.

Emotional support animals are protected under the Fair Housing Amendments Act, which upholds the right to have an emotional support animal without having to pay pet fees or deposits. In the past, all major airlines allowed emotional support animals to travel in the cabin of the airplane for free. Starting this year, many airlines have announced that service animals are restricted to dogs.

Lastly, there is an emerging field called veterinary social work, which trains social workers to work with pet owners who may need help or support coping with a pet’s illness or death. Referrals typically come from vets themselves, who may not feel comfortable or have the time to offer extended support to pet owners.   

Tom Favale, a social worker and veterinarian who practices at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville, says their services can be a lifeline for pet owners who need the support of someone who understands the human-animal bond.

Annie Schoonover, whose beloved horse Justy, died in January, says the opportunity to work remotely with Favale was “a giant miracle, like a life raft thrown to me,” she says, adding that she emerged from her grief “more human, more compassionate and more present.” 

Indeed, pets can distract us from our problems, help us feel more engaged, inspire us to move on from past struggles and even perform tasks that we might have lost the ability to perform ourselves.

In my life I have had the privilege of caring for 10 dogs, two cats and three horses, including my current two dogs, Jada and Zayde. My husband and I love to hike with them at a nearby nature preserve, which helps us bond with them, and ensures that we ourselves keep walking — and talking — every day.

Our beloved pets give us freedom, independence and love — and yes, are a lifeline to a better, safer, more joyful life.

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