Animals as Therapists: how Cats, Dogs and Co. benefit the Soul

Animals as Therapists
I admit: I am biased. Animals have always played a predominant role in my own life. I could not even imagine my life without at least one cat being with me. One of the reasons may well be that I occasionally resort to four-legged assistants when working with clients when the occasion arises – and usually with decidedly positive results.

For instance, a few years ago I treated a young women who had been sexually abused by a neighbor and from that moment on avoided all physical contact to other people. Even an affectionate hug by a good girl friend would transfer her into something akin to rigor mortis and cause sheer panic instead of pleasant feelings. At the same time she suffered from this condition and deeply longed for closeness but was unable to overcome her anxiety. At one point during one of our early conversations she had mentioned her wish for a dwarf rabbit as a child but that she never had been given one. Now she was an adult, had her own apartment and there was nothing keeping her from realizing this dream. After some hesitation she let me persuade her to visit a pet store. Literally at first sight she fell in love with an adorable rabbit she was going to name Felix.
Felix turned out to be a very important companion in the young women’s life and as is the rabbits’ behavior pattern, he quickly bonded and soon became very trusting and attached. Soon he was not any longer satisfied with just hopping about the room during his daily out-of-cage time: He wanted to be on the lap, join her in bed and demanded plenty of kindness and affection. I still remember the session when the woman told me that Felix snuggled on her neck and nibbled on her hair while she was resting on her bed reading. She promptly went rigid with shock and completely tensed up … but Felix was not impressed. Day by day he tenaciously continued his smooching campaign and in time her resistance melted away under his gentle soft little feet. Felix simply had an excellent sense for how far he could go each time. She began to enjoy the snuggle times with him and gradually she also managed to transfer this experience to inter-personal relationships and thus regain her trust in others. Meanwhile she has become a very well balanced and receptive young woman enjoying lots of social contacts even including a steady partnership. By now Felix unfortunately crossed the rainbow bridge into rabbit heaven but he will forever occupy a very special place in her (and my!) heart. He was the best co-therapist I could have wished for!

Psychologists and medical practitioners have long known that animals can be deployed therapeutically in a variety of contexts. In certain instances animal supported therapy is even financed by German health insurance funds, in the therapists’ opinion unfortunately not nearly as frequently as it would be desirable. Deployment opportunities for our four-legged, swimming and winged helpers are extremely diversified. In the course of recent years a variety of media reports have recounted the obviously quite involved and expensive dolphin therapy that was introduced in the 70s by the psychologist Natanson. It is primarily applied on behalf of severely emotionally or physically handicapped children with occasional spectacular results although unfortunately not affordable by everyone and not entirely uncontroversial. In our latitudes in Germany we more frequently employ hippo-therapy or therapeutic horseback riding. In one respect it acts very positively on balance, muscle relaxation and body awareness of the physically handicapped but it also impacts emotional and social problems: horses are acknowledged to be eminently sensitive animals intuitively sensing their rider’s mood and reacting to it. Interacting with them helps the patients understand and learn about themselves and deal with their moods differently. Horses as many other animals frequently act as mirrors to (frequently) subconscious emotions and therefore also render suppressed feelings visible. Mental blocks can be resolved, the unconscious can be perceived. At the same time therapeutic horseback riding almost inevitably increases the patients’ self confidence because they experience new empowerment within themselves and learn to exercise social skills as a part of the contact with the animal. They develop a sense of responsibility and empathy for another creature – more often than not for the first time in their lives.

Generally it is safe to say that animals are good for our health even though we may not be emotionally or physically ailing: Those who live with a Charlie or a Hasso do have to venture outside regardless of rain and snow and absolve their daily walks – our obligation to them, great conditioning and good for our heart and circulation! Numerous studies also demonstrated lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels in animal caregivers who are also a lot less subject to depression than their contemporaries without animal companionship. Those of us who live with a four legged or winged companion are familiar with the effect: a round of fur scratching or feather fluffing relaxes even at times of the worst stress (the heartbeat slows measurably,) and nothing effects us as soothingly as the languorous purring of a cat on our lap or our dog’s peaceful breathing at our feet. For many their animal companions have grown to be a sort of a “confidant”: One can tell them everything troubling and depressing and still be sure that they’ll keep it to themselves and continue to be lovingly accepting. Beyond everything else in the eyes of the experts, this sense of being accepted, their unconditional devotion is a vital contributing factor of the effect our animal companions have on us.

Our dog doesn’t really give a hoot whether we are getting older, aren’t as pretty as we used to be and possibly even are having trouble walking; it isn’t interested in our income or our professional carrier – or the lack of it. It just loves us for ourselves –something that many people in the daily routine of our status- and achievement oriented society experience rarely or not nearly enough. Last but not least, our animal companion gives its caregiver the feeling of being needed, to be important – something invaluable particularly for those lacking social contacts who may even have lost their direction in life. I continue observing that for instance those who lost their jobs and who are the caregivers of an animal companion are better able to deal with their situation than those without this emotional support: there is someone who does not look away, is embarrassed and keeps his distance when I tell them “I am now on unemployment”. Mark Twain once said: “Animals are the best friends, they don’t ask any questions and don’t criticize.” He also said: “The more I know about people, the better I like my dog.” And is there anyone who does not occasionally need a friend like that in his/her life? Animal companions don’t judge us; they simply give us their devotion and loyalty.
It is surely not per chance that particularly older folks more positively react to dealings with animals, a perception that fortunately has gradually made its way into the care for seniors. Domesticated animals are more and more being admitted into senior citizens’ homes or at least regular visits by especially trained and patient four legged visitors and their companions are being organized. For instance the German organization “Animals help People” ( visits homes for seniors, but also hospitals, children’s homes, homes for the disabled, assisted housing, schools, Kindergartens, jails and individuals with physical or emotional impairments with its animals. For instance, seniors in retirement homes are able to pet the animals, feed them and, their condition permitting walk them – and in that way finally care for someone else instead always having to be on the receiving end. With the help of these dogs juvenile offenders learn to better control themselves and their impulses, show their feelings and assume responsibilities for their own actions and for others. But then this concept also works both ways. In the United States a TV series features selected hardened convicts incarcerated for serious crimes paired with trained pit bulls confiscated from dog fighting rings and destined for euthanizing. Over time previously asocial humans and dogs bond, change their behavior, display affection and eventually are returned to a normal and productive life.

But then animals are also outstanding motivators, much more effective than human coaches can ever hope to be. The enticement generated – as for instance finally being able to sit on a horse without help - is simply irresistible for many and motivates developments and changes. Autistic children, blind or deaf patients but also old or demented people who have already totally withdrawn within themselves, can often still be reached with the help of an animal when all other attempts at contacting them have failed: Suddenly they show interest, caress the dog’s coat or smile when the cat moves against their legs. In general, animals – and especially dogs! – in my opinion are truly unbeatable when the challenge consists of strengthening social competencies and promoting sociableness. I have more than one client whom I have talked into at least fostering a dog from the shelter and taking it for regular walks; the result - usually nice conversations with other dog owners on park benches and sometimes new acquaintances. Even the most timid finally manage a little small talk because Schnuffel and Charlie offer so many innocent opportunities. And even without the four-legged coach by their side all of a sudden at the next party they even have the nerve to ask that lady they really like to join in a glass of wine.

In case you don’t have one yet, which animal you may want to invite into your life depends on a variety of circumstances – not least of all on the time you have available, your housing situation and your financial situation. All animals are helpful and today a wide variety are deployed in therapies: in addition to those already mentioned also ducks, geese, sheep, goats, pigs, alpacas, birds, rodents, fish and numerous others. Everything depends on what works for you and what is possible. If you make the right choice it will surely enrich your life. According to Konrad Lorenz: “The wish to have an animal is usually rooted in an ancient basic motive, namely civilized man’s longing for the lost paradise.” By the way, as I write this a little slice of it purrs happily next to me on my desk . . .