How Animals Help Us Heal
Since I was a child I have loved animals big and small, I always felt connected to them in a different way. Animals give us something that we can't give each other. There have been service animals and animals assisting in different types of therapies since the 1960's. More recently emotional support animals have become popular, and it's no wonder with how in tune and compassionate animals can be. Animals assist with anxiety, grief, depression, seizure disorders, traumatic brain injury, dysphasia, panic attacks, diabetes, loneliness, asthma, they guide the blind, and so many other mental and physical disabilities. For some, they provide a reason to keep going and get through the darkest days. Research has shown that the simple act of looking into your pets eyes can lower your heart rate. They give us a sense of purpose, they provide unconditional love, a calming sensation, and a sense of both warmth and connection.
No matter what environment we are in, animals heal. We see dogs, miniature horses, and other small, cuddly animals visiting both nursing homes, hospice care, treatment facilities, and prisons across the globe to assist in bringing a sense of joy, comfort, and love to the residents. For pet owners, it's common to hear the sentence "they are family" or in more recent years the term "dog mom" comes to mind. Animals give us a sense of purpose, they also come with responsibility. We love our pets very similarly to the way we love our children, we worry about them, we talk to them, we love them, and in doing so, our oxytocin levels increase. Oxytocin is the hormone in our bodies responsible for trust, love, and bonding. Its the hormone that allows us to make intimate connections with others, and allows mothers to bond with their newborns. Science is pretty nifty, if you ask me. It also has the ability to help decrease pain, head aches, and cramps.
Interacting with animals can also increase dopamine levels, in case you aren't familiar, dopamine if the happy hormone, it makes us feel good. The sensation we get when we have that first sip of coffee in the morning, or enjoy that first bite of our favorite dessert, that is thanks to dopamine. In interacting with animals, cortisol levels also decrease, cortisol is the stress hormone. There are clearly mental, emotional, and physical health benefits that we receive from animals. They have the ability to lower our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels, this decreasing the risk of heart disease or heart attack. Not to mention that they get us moving, walking our dogs (or are they walking us?), playing with cats, cleaning out tanks of turtles, the stalls and paddocks of horses, no matter what, they help in humans having some movement in their daily lives, no matter how much physical activity they require, they ultimately help us get up, get moving, and often times help us get to or remain in a more positive mindset.
There is a social aspect of how animals help us heal as well. They give us purpose, it's said that people are less likely to commit suicide if they have an animal in their home. They help us bond with others, even those with social anxiety are more likely to talk about their pet, and converse in a different way than they might without the pets presence. They help give us hope, love, a sense of purpose, they help us socialize and connect with others, they fulfill emotional needs such as companionship, love, comfort, and security.
Perhaps this isn't new information to pet owners or animals lovers alike, however there are people who don't believe it until they try it. If you didn't grow up with animals, and haven't had much connection or contact with them in your adult like, it may be harder to believe and grasp the concept, that yes, animals have healing powers and can increase our overall well-being. Personally, I grew up with cats, small animals, and horses, I can say without a doubt that they each got me through some of the harder moments life threw at me.
It wasn't until I was in my undergraduate program that I became a dog person. I had always been the "horse girl" who also had cats. The bond I experienced as soon as I first met my dog when he was only six weeks old was indescribable. Over the past decade since he and I first met, we have bonded in a special way, that is also hard to describe. He is family, while he isn't a human child, he is my child, he brings me joy, he makes me laugh, he is always there no matter what. I may not have believed how intuitive and healing a dog could be without experiencing it first hand. I had experienced a similar bond over the years with horses that I leased and owned, a different, but also powerful connection.
Have you ever experienced a special bond with an animal? Share your story with me, how have animals helped you heal?