A cat, a monkey and a miniature horse. Other than being mammals, what else do these animals have in common?
Members of these animal families serve as therapy animals. In World War II, Dr. Charles Mayo, founder of the Mayo Clinic, witnessed the affect a patient’s Yorkshire terrier had on other patients. An instant hit with patients, the terrier accompanied Dr. Mayo on his daily rounds. The little terrier, named Smoky, spent the next 12 years visiting Dr. Mayo’s patients, becoming the first therapy dog. In 1976, a registered nurse, Elaine Smith, started training dogs for a new role: therapy dog. Since that first little dog made wounded soldiers smile, science has studied how animals help people cope with stress, physical ailments and disabilities, and emotional crises.
A Helpful Paw Or Hoof
You might picture a dog when thinking about service animals, but monkeys and miniature horses also serve disabled masters. A blind person might choose a miniature guide horse if he’s afraid of dogs, loves horses, is allergic to dogs, has a physical disability or doesn’t want an animal that must live indoors. Capuchin monkeys serve as extra hands for people with spinal injuries, and can turn pages, flip switches, scratch itches and put straws into bottles and cups.
All service animals, traditional and unusual alike, go through years of volunteer-provided training, preparing them for human interaction and nondestructive indoor living. These are working animals, and having one means submitting an application, with references, interviews and home visits by the placement organization. Fortunately, having an average household pet has benefits, too!
Your household pet is blissfully unaware of the positive impact it has on you and your family. Its nonjudgmental loyalty greets you at the end of a horrible workday with enthusiasm akin to welcoming a victorious football team’s return. Pet owners have always known that pets can make you healthier and add meaning to your life. A child that must wear braces or use a walker to get around, may develop greater confidence in his or her abilities when the family dog serves as extra support while walking and can help the child stand after falling.
Children with seizure disorders may fear being alone while in public or at home but gain confidence when the family pet is with them. The dog can alert adults to an emergency, and watch over a child until the crisis passes. Feeling unconditional love and acceptance from the pet can negate social isolation and rejection, giving the child the confidence to explore and try new activities. This confidence allows independence to thrive.
Dogs can motivate the elderly to leave the safety of home for daily walks, twice daily for 15 minutes or once daily for 30 minutes, replacing isolation with neighborly conversation, and a sedentary life with exercise resulting in better weight control, lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure. You can enjoy those same benefits long before you retire.
In spite of their aloof independence, cats benefit households without presenting hunting trophies when you least expect them. Cat ownership may reduce your stroke and heart attack risks by lowering anxiety and stress. After all, you can’t stay stressed while stroking your cat as it purrs in complete approval. Scientists cannot decide if simply owning a cat lowers your risks, or if petting the cat is necessary, but it is safe to assume that cat companions enrich their owners’ lives, and that is healthy!
Your lifestyle might not support pet ownership, but you can enjoy its benefits without the expenses or responsibilities. Sometimes neighbors need to travel for work or anticipate hospital stays. Offering to walk and care for their pet while they are away not only helps them, but gives you quality time with their dog. If they have a cat, bird or other animal that interests you, offer to care for them, as well. Consider starting your own pet-sitting or dog-walking service. Ask your local animal shelter if it is a rental program or if it needs volunteers to foster animals before adoption. Both options limit the time you must devote to care and feeding and keep the animal socialized and accustomed to human contact.
You do not need a disability for animals to calm your nerves, ease your depression and help you through life’s tough patches. Caring for an animal shifts your thoughts away from your problems, focusing them on a pet that relies on you for it well-being. In return, it accepts you and your flaws. Whether you buy your own pet or arrange for time with one belonging to someone else, the warmth and affinity passing between you can comfort and restore.