Dogs have always held a special place in my heart and in my home. When I left to attend college, I felt incomplete without the company of my two dogs, Sherlock and Agatha. I volunteered at the local animal shelter and on a farm that had multiple horses, twelve dogs, several cats, a goat and some bunnies. In my fourth year at the University of Virginia, I wrote a paper about pets and the elderly in a psychology seminar focused on the study of friendship. Animals were clearly central to my day-to-day life and ultimately, my happiness.
A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially.~Florence Nightingale
I was very homesick at college, but I discovered that time spent with animals brought me peace of mind no two-legged friend could offer. When I pulled my 1980 Chevy Caprice into the driveway of the farm, 5 or more dogs ran across fields to greet me. Walker, the stocky yellow Lab, was always the first to stick his nose, and often times, his whole body, into the car. No matter what was going on with classes or how much I missed my family, his enthusiasm made me smile. Bismark, the old German Shepherd, observed from a distance, and Rufus, the unknown mix who resembled a short, squat Rottweiller-colored Sharpei, waited near the barn for his pats. He was the leader of the motley pack.
I always left the farm feeling enriched and peaceful. I realized then that animals possess a special power to distract and uplift. The paper I wrote for that psychology class taught me that animals elicit a physiological response in people that benefits our health. Specifically with the elderly, spending time with a beloved pet can lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health.
Five years after I graduated college, I was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. One of my first requests? Pet therapy, of course! They sent me from the emergency room to the oncology ward with the knowledge that I would be there for at least one month. I thought back to that paper I wrote in college and when a nurse came in to see if there was anything they could get for me, I quickly replied “pet therapy”! My doctor actually wrote a prescription for it!
I had a 4-legged visitor almost every day, and my family even worked with the head of the animal assisted care program to bring my own dogs to the hospital. These visits gave me something to look forward to each day, and they broke up the routine of life in the hospital. I began to feel the healing power of pets in a very real sense.
Kind of like baseball, dogs provided a distraction. They also seemed to sense just how I was feeling. My own pups would be playful when they saw I had more energy, and calm when they sensed I wasn’t feeling well. I will never forget one evening when I was giving myself chemo at home through the Hickman catheter implanted in my chest. I lay on my side on the couch and my dog Jameson walked over and placed his head very gently on my neck. He left it there for several seconds as if to say, “Don’t worry…you’re not alone. I’m here for you.” It was such a peaceful, comforting moment.
I had incredible support from family and friends, but there truly is something special about pets. Don’t take my word for it though! Here’s a quick look at some of the healing potential of animals:
- In an article in The Washington Times (that happens to feature my hospital’s program! Miles was one of my favorite visitors.), nurses, doctors and volunteers shared stories of accident victims moving and walking to interact with the animal, of patients suffering from speech issues talking during therapy in the presence of a dog and of animal assisted therapy reducing blood pressure.
- Cancer Treatment Centers of America lists the following benefits to animal assisted therapy (benefits not only for patients, but also their loved ones and caregivers):
- Reduces stress
- Offers positive tactile sensation
- Provides company
- Provides a distraction
- Rover.com mentions the healing aspect of socialization: “Dogs invite conversation, and can help patients express themselves more freely to doctors and loved ones.”
“One little boy got out of his wheelchair for the first time when he wanted to give Brady a treat, she says. The boy walked almost 50 feet, all the way across the room and back.” Animals Assist Healing, The Washington Times
I agree with psychotherapist and cancer survivor Mike Verano who wrote in “Cancer and the Healing Power of Pets”, tongue in cheek, “I think that everyone who receives a diagnosis of cancer should also receive a puppy (or other small animals of their liking) right after they’re advised about the possible side effects that can come with chemotherapy.”
OK, well, maybe we shouldn’t just give away puppies (although I love this story of a leukemia patient who got a puppy as soon as her doctor said her immune system was strong enough!), but patients should have access to a loving 4-legged cuddler. I will always be grateful for the many furry therapists that brightened my days during treatment and recovery, and I’d love to hear your own stories! Share how your pets helped you through life’s challenges in the comments below. For more information on animal-assisted therapy, visit petpartners.org (formerly known as The Delta Society). Pet Partners was created in 1977 to explore the effects that animals have on people’s lives.