Animals are great healers. Anyone who has ever owned a pet can tell you about the positive influence they have on their lives. It is no accident that the role of animals in therapy is becoming more widely recognised, with their many benefits becoming more and more apparent. What is less known is that animals can also help us amend issues that we are dealing with in our own lives by mirroring them back to us. It is often said that the biggest healer of all is love and animals certainly have plenty of that to give.
Daisy came into my life at a point when I really needed her. I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and knew I had a gruelling few months of treatment to contend with. My husband worked at home a lot anyway and I knew that having the time of work would be a good opportunity to train her and that I would really benefit from her company. Little did I know just how big a part she would play in my healing process.
Following my first operation she was there for me, curling up and sleeping alongside me. Even as a pup she sensed I needed rest and company. Throughout my treatment she ensured I got up and kept moving about. With a pup you have to get up and play and walks are essential, though again some days I didn’t always feel like it. Getting out of the house did me the world of good.
When you have a long-term illness, it’s amazing how quickly you can start to lose your confidence in going out and meeting people. I found this to be especially true when I found myself with no hair, eyebrows or even eyelashes. Daisy made sure I went out – not only for a walk around the neighbourhood and local field, but to training school, which I really enjoyed. She re-introduced me to the things I loved, which made my whole healing process so much easier.
I have so many pictures of Sammy, our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel comforting my children when they were ill. My kids wouldn’t entertain much fuss, but they always wanted Sammy when they were ill or in pain and Sammy would always curl up with them. That little ball of fluff would always make him feel better. Even as we speak now, Rolo, the latest addition to our family is curled up with my teenage daughter, who is feeling unwell at the moment.
Animal therapy is becoming more widely recognised and researched as people are starting to notice the many benefits they bring. Therapy animals are being used in residential homes for the elderly, special needs schools, hospitals and hospices and even mainstream schools.
Therapy animals are usually used to compliment existing therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Counselling, by helping the service users to feel calm and form the bonds with the animal that they may not be able to bond with therapists. People often find themselves talking to the animals, discussing their problems with the animals, caring for and bonding with the animals and becoming mindful with the animals. (See https://melanieappleyard.com/the-benefits-of-mindfulness/ and https://melanieappleyard.com/be-mindful-with-the-owl/ )
Noah’s Art (https://www.noahs-art.co.uk/) is a service that uses rescue animals as therapy animals. They identify four areas that are supported by animal therapy: emotional, cognitive, social and behavioural and physical.
Therapy animals can support emotions through developing empathy and through giving and receiving love from the animals. Stroking a pet is very calming and can also reduce blood pressure. Animals can also be very funny and we all know the old adage that ‘laughter is the best medicine.’
As we know from my website there is so much we can learn from observing the behaviour of animals. They are a very good role model for mindfulness (see https://melanieappleyard.com/be-mindful-with-the-owl/), but also they mirror behaviours that need addressing.
Social and Behavioural
What better thing to talk about than animals (I’m showing my bias here), but seriously animals give people something to talk about, which in turn develops social skills in people who struggle with conversation. This can then help people find common ground, which develops their sense of belonging and improves self-esteem. Caring for animals also develop responsibility, which helps to develop positive behaviour patterns.
Animals develop physical health by encouraging movement through walks and play and by providing opportunities to discuss healthy diets and cleanliness whilst learning how to care for animals.
How Else Can Animals Help Us?
All the benefits of therapy animals can be seen through owning your own pets and encouraging children to develop bonds with them and to help care for them.
Did you know though that we can learn a lot about ourselves through our pets’ behaviour? Animals are very empathic and they often mirror our strengths and weaknesses. Many of you may have heard or even seen how animals often take on the gait of the person who walks them. When you are feeling sad, your pets will often comfort you, but they will probably stay out of your way when you are angry.
People who have a strict routine will find that their pets also have a fixed routine and they will tell you when they need to be fed or want to walk. If you suffer from anxiety your animals will also pick up on that and often they may become anxious themselves. Likewise, someone who is laid back will often have a very laid back pet.
Sometimes animals have a way of teaching you about yourself in a very different way. Daisy actually helped me become tidier because if anything was out of place she would find it and run off with it – much to my husband’s amusement.
The Power of Love
The biggest thing that animals can give to us and have in abundance is love. Show an animal love, compassion and care and you will have it mirrored back tenfold. One of the most basic and fundamental needs that we all have is to be loved. Love provides us with a sense of security, it allows us to feel needed, cared for and safe. We also have an innate need to love others. Raj Raghunathan (2014) claims that
One of the best kept secrets of happiness is to love and take care of others
Many people who live alone benefit greatly from having a pet to share their love and attention with. Even when an abundance of love is given and received in family households, you can never have enough love.
Whether you get your animal fix through adopting your own pet, through animal assisted therapy, by visiting the pets of friends or even by spending time with animals in nature, that time can be very beneficial to your health. Walking in nature and listening to the birds can help you to be present and mindful, as can sitting and stroking your pet or playing with them.
Imbalances in your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing can lead to dis-ease, which in turn can lead to ill health. Animals offer so much love and can help you to bring these areas back into balance, allowing you to take care of them and love them back. They are therefore super healers.
I’d love to here your experiences of how your pets have helped you. Please leave your comments below to let me know.
Raghunathan R (2014) The Need to Love. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sapient-nature/201401/the-need-love
Noah’s Art https://www.noahs-art.co.uk/