The Power of Pets

Facilitating Healing on All Levels

By Shirley Vanderbilt

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2004.

Whether it’s a wet lick on the face or a gentle brush to the leg, our pets are unabashedly open in displaying their love and affection for human owners. They could care less about our physical appearance or success in life. They are the ultimate love agents of nature — always loyal, compassionate and unconditional in their attachment.

The animal-human bond is as old as time and for good reason. Pets bring us into the present moment, awakening our basic instinct to love and be loved, to connect at the spiritual level and to play with abandon. It’s no wonder that pet therapy is steadily making its way into many healing practices, from hospitals to rehabilitation programs. A close relationship with the animal kingdom is good for our souls, but can also have some amazing effects on our bodies as well.

In this bustling, stressful modern world, scientific studies have found that just stroking a dog or cat can lower your blood pressure and heart rate, not to mention what it does for your pet. This calming influence leads us to a more balanced life, taking time for the intimate moments of sharing and caring. Especially for the elderly and those who live alone, caring for a pet provides a clear sense of purpose and a feeling of being needed. And for children, as well as some wayward adults, it enhances responsible behavior and a deep respect for other living things.

Touch is one of our most basic needs and without it our body and spirit suffer. Petting a dog or cat provides this essential stimulation to our largest organ, the skin, in much the same manner as the touch-based healing practices of massage and bodywork. It creates a similar flow of energy in which both the giver and receiver can benefit.

A Certain Friend

There is a peacefulness inherent to the rhythm of life in the animal kingdom. Watching the steady breathing of a sleeping dog, listening to the gentle purr of a cat or being mesmerized by the graceful swimming of fish in an aquarium brings us into that sacred space of attention to life at its most fundamental essence. In this state, worries and anxiety disappear, and for the moment, our own body and mind are entrained into this same calm balance.

According to Dr. Marty Becker, author of The Healing Power of Pets, “Part of the healing power of pets is their capacity to make the atmosphere safe for emotions, the spiritual side of healing.” Attuned to our moods and needs, they allow us to express ourselves without fear of judgment and will remain faithfully by our side. It is this sixth sense of attunement and compassion in animals that makes them perfect partners in the healing process for people with disability or illness.

For example, horses used in riding therapy for physically-challenged children and adults show a special sensitivity to the fragility and needs of their riders. The movement of the horse works the body like physical therapy, while the accomplishment of riding skills instills self-confidence and a sense of worth in the rider. In animal-assisted therapy, children who have difficulty forming attachments because of abuse and neglect begin to learn the value of safe and comforting touch when they forge a bond with loyal four-legged creatures. Some nursing and rehabilitation centers have opened their doors to animal visitors, even permanently adopting cats and dogs to the delight and benefit of residents.

Pets also heal what ails us by inspiring us to get up and go. We know that exercise is one of the most important factors in maintaining good health. The benefits of daily walking have been well documented, from weight loss to overall improved physical functioning. Outdoor excursions with the family dog not only dispose us to a more active lifestyle but also increase our chances for socializing with other animal lovers.

Animal companionship is especially life-enhancing for seniors. In the midst of losing friends, life partners and physical abilities, the routine of feeding and caring for a pet keeps the mind alive and the body active, bringing a sense of normalcy to what many elders perceive as a declining life situation. In a similar manner, for those suffering from depression a pet serves as a good reason to get out of bed in the morning and focus on something positive. For children, having a pet is an important part of their development in learning respect, responsibility and love.

Quiet Lessons

The presence of a pet in the home enhances our lives in many ways. They lighten up our darkest moments and create an outlet for playful interaction. They teach us to be disciplined and mindful. They also have much to teach us about the cycle of life — the exuberance of youth, the heart-warming rewards of a long-term relationship, and the acceptance of old age and death.

When choosing your special companion, consider what size and type of pet is best suited to your physical abilities and lifestyle as well as your home. Cost of care, potential allergies and time required to keep your pet healthy, happy and secure are all important factors in this decision. For those with physical limitations, a low maintenance pet such as a bird or fish can still provide the benefits of this close bonding with nature. Our beloved pets, whatever form they come in, serve as a symbol of our connection to the universe — that common denominator of unconditional love.