For seven years, I have been the doting mother of Elle, a small Chihuahua-Terrier mix dog that I rescued from a shelter. When she came to me she was underweight, suffered from malnutrition, ridden with scabies and infection. Despite all of that, it was love at first sight. There’s a comfort that comes from being in the presence of Elle. I don’t feel that the term ‘pet’ does her justice, as she is much more than that. She is a therapist, a playmate, a companion and a source of love in my life. It’s not hard to understand the role animals can play in health and well-being.
What is the role of animal interaction in health? Karin Winegar author of Saved: Rescued Animals and the Lives They Transform, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “The human-animal bond bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the heart and emotions and nurtures us in ways that nothing else can… We’ve seen this from coast to coast, whether it’s disabled children at a riding center in California or a nursing home in Minnesota, where a woman with Alzheimer’s could not recognize her husband but she could recognize their beloved dog.”
A number of hospitals allow ‘pet volunteers’ to come in and visit with patients to provide a service known as Animal Assisted Therapy. Seattle Pi reports that patients feel more relaxed and in a way distracted from their situation in the presence of a dog. The Delta Society in Seattle is a national program that allows individuals to register with their companions and go through a screening process to volunteer in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitations centers, schools and other facilities. This program was developed to ensure that Animal Assisted Therapy programs allow both people and animals to be well educated on the process of being a volunteer in this respect.
The American Humane Association acknowledges Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) as a “goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical health-care treatment process.” The benefits of AAT include enhancing quality of life, physiological benefits and mental stimulation. AAT works exceptionally well with rehabilitation patients because interaction with the animals provides motivation to continue movement. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) also believes that there are both physical and emotional health benefits for a variety of patients, including the elderly, disabled, deaf, blind, children and emotionally or physically ill. Animals serve as communication catalysts between healthcare providers and patients and can also reduce anxiety in medical and social settings. Children with autism have been shown to benefit immensely from the presence of an animal companion. The AVMA states “sense barriers may interfere with human-human interactions and tend to isolate affected individuals; however, verbal communication and sight are not necessary for positive interactions with animals and these interactions may facilitate communication with human handlers or health care providers.”
The Center for Disease Control states that having an animal companion in your home can help to decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness. How? Having a four legged companion increases the amount of exercise, outdoor activity and socialization. I know that despite what the weather may be like in Seattle, I am out and walking with Elle even when others stick to staying inside. Although Elle has a physiologic need to be outdoors, she enjoys it and as a result, so do I.
And so it is when I come home tired and worn out from a long day of classes, and I want nothing more than to sit back and put my feet up. I happily don my rain poncho and take my loving little companion on her walk. Caring for her improves my health and well-being, and a little bit of rain won’t stop us.