Pet Therapy: Angels in Disguise

When you let an animal befriend you, it won't take long to discover the difference it will make in your life

woman holding a cat

Twenty-five-year-old Shalini, a small-town-girl relocated to Mumbai, thanks to a sizeably attractive pay packet. Living all alone in a 1-BHK apartment in a new, sprawling city plunged her into depression.

Faced with cut-throat competition and office politics, she couldn't count on any colleague as a friend. Also, her few "friends" outside office hardly ever had the time for her.

Shalini would dread being left alone and, unfortunately, she got into a hasty relationship with an abusive guy who soon betrayed her. A broken-hearted Shalini was crying hysterically and contemplating suicide, late one night, when she heard a puppy's agonised howl muffling with her sobs.

She soon discovered the injured stray puppy at her doorstep. She rescued the puppy, took him to the vet, nursed him back to health and adopted him. In the process, the puppy brought a new dimension to Shalini's life. He became her best friend and companion, dispelled her loneliness and made her a lot happier.

"Having my puppy by my side is calming and reassuring. Petting her makes me feel connected to something. The animosity of humans is what drove me to depression, whereas the "humanimality" [humane love, care, and kindness bestowed by an animal] is what helped me to get better. I am now completely off anti-depressants. My puppy was my miracle therapy."

Miracle therapy

Human-animal bonds may be uniquely therapeutic. Though pets may not serve a completely utilitarian purpose they've been part of many a household since prehistoric times, simply because of the affection and understanding they evoke.

The phrase "pet therapy" was coined in 1964, by Boris Levinson, an American child psychiatrist who discovered that severely withdrawn children opened up when he began to use his dog in his sessions. Though Levinson wasn't the first to use animals in treating psychological disorders he is, however, credited with spreading awareness and in-depth research into pet therapy. Minal Lonkar Kavishwar, a clinical psychologist and Founder-President of Animal Angels Foundation, says, that, "Mentally-ill patients long for acceptance. Whereas humans may be judgemental, animals will always accept a human being." Kavishwar is a firm believer in animal-assisted therapy that facilitates healing and rehabilitation of patients with acute and chronic diseases.

Therapy pets

Though dogs are generally the favourite among all kinds of therapy pets because of their gregarious nature, a wide array of animals may be used for therapy - cats, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, hamsters, fish, dolphins and horses. Do creepy crawly animals work, too? It all depends on one's perception of the animal. Says investment banker Pranav Sharma: "I had a pet spider as a child which hung in its webbed glory for about a year, right above my study table. Watching it strategising and building/redesigning the web all the time brought nice breaks to revitalise my mind, when I got bogged down with the monotony of memorising facts and figures."

Not all animals are, however, legalised to be kept as household pets, especially exotic animals. Moreover, acquiring a pet should never be done in haste. A mis-match between the pet and the owner will provide no therapeutic benefit and may result in the neglect, or abandonment of the pet.

As Kavishwar explains the process of animal-assisted therapy: "The case-history of the patient is first taken. I access which problem should be dealt with first and the target goal to be achieved. We see how comfortable the person is with the animal. Young children may be attracted to the animal, but not know how to handle it; there's never a therapy session with the animal directly coming to the patient. The animal gets acquainted with the client s/he is going to work with."

All animals used for therapy by Kavishwar have been certified perfectly healthy by vets, and trained by her, especially for therapy purposes. Her mode of therapy also gives those who can't afford to keep a pet at home the therapeutic benefit of animals at her clinic. The good doctor takes therapy pets for sessions to institutes of the mentally retarded, autistic, lonely, physically disabled, hearing and speech impaired, terminally-ill cancer patients too.

Renowned lawyer Gerry Spence once observed, "Wisdom usually does not fall from high places. The mighty and the splendid have taught me little. I have learned more from my dog than from all the great books I have read. The wisdom of my dog is the product of his inability to conceal his wants. When he yearns to be loved, there is no pouting in the corner. There are no games entitled 'Guess What is the Matter with Me.' He puts his head on my lap, wags his tail and looks up at me with kind eyes, waiting to be petted. No professor or sage ever told me I might live a more successful life if I simply asked for love when I needed it."

Just let an animal befriend you and discover the difference it'll make in your life. No wonder classical novelist George Eliot eulogised: "Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms."

Pet Benefits

May be, animals are our angels in disguise; better still, they are also wise!

  • Scientific studies show that stroking a pet may reduce blood pressure and stress. The right kind of touch is crucial for nourishing the mind and spirit. Having an animal to hold and hug can make an amazing difference to those who, otherwise, have no positive or appropriate physical contact. For some people, a touch from a human being may not be acceptable whereas petting an animal may seem safe, non-threatening and pleasant. Sexually-abused patients who are often averse to any kind of touch may gain reassurance and trust by starting to stroke a pet. "There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face," says animal lover Ben Williams.
  • Playing with a pet and taking it for regular walks is an excellent physical exercise. Says veterinarian surgeon, Dr Gautam Unny, "I know of countless households where people are compelled to get up at 5.00 am to walk the dog which really helps in making them feel fresh. Soon waking up early becomes a healthy habit for them rather than a rigorous chore."
  • Pets are an excellent motivational catalyst to help children learn new things or overcome deficiencies that they may have. Says Kavishwar, "Children who were declared deaf and mute actually spoke their first words seeing my therapy dogs - 'Kuttu,' for Kutti, and 'Cho-pie,' for Sophie. Physically-challenged or spastic children, who combine motor skill exercises while they are playing with a pet, may get quicker results than being coerced to do the same physical exercises. I help children with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] to improve their attention span by following the movement of a fish in an aquarium with their finger."
  • At old-age homes, palliative care clinics, drug rehabilitation centres, mental hospitals and even prisons, where seclusion from friends, family and society, is a major problem, pets help reduce loneliness and anxiety, boost self-esteem and encourage group activities and communication among inmates. When they tend to the pet, it also provides relaxation and recreation.
  • Taking care of a pet, feeding it, talking it for walks, cleaning its cage, and enlisting a vet, makes a person nurturing, loving and responsible.

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