Something I will often ask my clients is if they have a pet. Even during an intake, I will write down any animal as part of the family system. This is not just for the amazing pictures they will share with me and heartwarming stories- this is to assess to see if the person across from me has a certain type of support.
Something phenomenal happens when you ask a pet owner or just an animal fan about their current or past pets; no matter how depressed, anxious or stressed they appear, suddenly their whole body shifts. I will see the person break out into a smile as their eyes shine with positive emotion as they describe their pet to me.
Animals have an incredible ability to express and give love in a way most people can not accomplish. Animals have a way of being therapeutic in a sense that they do not ask for much of anything other than their love and return it tenfold . A man by the name of Carl Rogers is known as the founder of Humanistic Psychology, which focuses on fostering client-centered growth in an environment that provides acceptance and most importantly “unconditional positive regard.” The theory behind unconditional positive regard is the person can facilitate personal growth because they are being accepted for who they are, no matter what. Carl Rogers developed this theory while working with children who had been through abuse. I like to think of all pets & animals as little fluffy Carls- they provide us with unconditional love no matter who we are, what we have been through, how we look or what our story is.
Another beauty I often find in the human-animal bond are the similarities and gifts that can be found when two creature share an alike struggle. More often than not, I will hear stories of how a wounded person will take on a rescued animal- often that animal’s behaviors may mirror their own: a wary look that says “ I don’t know if I can trust you” and then over time, the animal begins the process of learning the language of love for perhaps the first time and flourishes. This same concept applies with people who are survivors- with optimal conditions in a nonthreatening environment, people can learn to rebuild trust and confidence despite their experiences with abuse.
There are numerous remarkable programs where rescue animals are rehabilitated with remarkable results for both parties. One such program is at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women. Per their website, these programs have had some astounding results: “ At this time, 100 percent of the inmates who have been released have found employment. Additionally, over the past three years the recidivism rate has been zero.” I believe interacting the dogs helps the women handle the depression and other challenges that come with being incarcerated. Through training a rescue dog, these women now have a strong sense of purpose. There are many programs where those who are incarcerated are given rescue animals either to train, or house inside a correctional center resulting in a much lower mental illness rate and recidivism rate.
It would be odd for me to think of animals as separate from therapy in the sense of what they provide. When I think of my therapeutic specialties ( working with children and with chronic illness) it is only natural that I believe animals would be beneficial for both of these populations.
For children, growing up with a pet teaches them so many things. Animals have the ability to help teach empathy, responsibility and can improve socializing skills for children. There is a myriad of research on how animal assisted therapy helps children diagnosed with Autism , even helping to improve social skills for these children. For children of abuse, they can strongly identify with an animal that has been a survivor itself, and create a safe loving bond with this animals. I have had the privilege of witnessing child survivors of abuse build confidence and trust through the safety of a pet.
For those with a chronic illness, a large part of the challenge is dealing with the depression and social isolation. I will always ask my clients about pets; pets have such a wonderful ability to help lessen the feelings of isolation and loneliness. A pet doesn’t care that you can’t make it to the shower every day or put on real pants. A pet is just happy for your existence and will remind you of this consistently. I often hear “ I don’t know where I would be without my pets” with those struggling with chronic illness and/or mental illness.
Every day is a wonderful to give your pet extra appreciation, love and snuggles. If you’re wondering about the benefits of having a pet, I encourage you to research the benefits, responsibilities and check out where you can adopt your next best friend.
"Animals are such agreeable friends―they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms." ― George Eliot
Alexis has been a part time contributor to the online website Patientworthy which is dedicated to education and awareness of rare and serious diseases. Links to articles written by Alexis: