Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Animals and our wellbeing

Dr. Pet – at your service!

A friend of mine was recently telling me about why she adopted a small dog.  She is a young, ambitious woman who lives in a busy city away from her family.  ‘It’s just good to know there is someone waiting for you at home’, she explained.  In our fast, one-tracked lives many people view their pets as companions.  

We all think we know the benefits of having a pet.  Companionship, affection, loyalty among others.  But are we aware of the complex and real benefits  of our relationship with our pets?

Animals therapists working with patients who have life-threatening conditions or immobilizing accidents know these benefits well.   Contact with animals encourages recovering patients to become more active and motivate them to make the effort to engage once again with the world around him in positive ways.  

The presence of pets in the home is beneficial for people undergoing stress from illness, disability or other conditions.  They give comfort and contentment.  Therefore they are an antidote to lonelinessPlaying or petting an animal encourages us to relax physically, mentally and emotionally.  Spending time with your fluffy, endearing companion can promote positive affective behaviour thus generating happier feelings.

   Our animal companions encourage calmness in persons undergoing medical or other stress.  For this reason dogs and cats have been used in treatment of Alzhiemer’s and ASD among others.  Even watching some fish in an aquarium can help to temporarily normalize high blood pressure!

Pets teach commitment.  We are responsible for their happiness.  We owe them the best lifestyle we can afford to give them. 

    They also teach us about behaviour - their and ours.  We learn to watch them and discover their preferences, character as well as quirks. Horses, for instance, are used in therapy because they mirror behaviour, responding to us according to the positive or negative attitude we carry with us. This process helps us become more aware of our behaviour towards others.  

Rider, therapist and pony on the same team.

A good study of how animals teach us about our own behaviour can be found in ‘A puppy called Aero’.  It is a book for everyone, written by the protagonist Liam Creed and tells a heartening tale on growing up, ADHD and an encounter with a rollicking puppy.

The benefits of spending time with animals are well known to people working in therapy settings.  Cats, dogs and dolphins among others, have been used in Animal Assisted Therapy.  

One theory (the biophilia hypothesis) explains that we have a primordial tendency to look to animals for signs of unrest or fear, signifying in the primitive world, a sign of danger to ourselves.  Conversely seeing an animal at rest, calms us down and helps us chill out!

A young rider proud of his achievements!

Horses have also found themselves involved in giving therapy.  Hippotherapy is a well established strategy which is beneficial on a number of levels.  It has been used to treat addictions, teach anger management, encourage problem-solving and support assertiveness training.  In riders with autism, hippotherapy has helped to increase their physical mobility, balance and coordination as well as stamina.  It has been known, among others, to increase expressive language in non-verbal riders.  Hippotherapy or equine assisted therapy, has similarly aided the recovery of victims of sexual abuse and emotional trauma. Through contact with the sight, smells, sounds and sensations of horse-riding, the rider’s mind
learns to process and integrate environmental stimuli, leading to better body awareness, improved emotional adaptation and ultimately increased self-esteem.  This in turns kick starts the rider’s ability to integrate better socially.

Over the years we have seen an increase of animal presence in cities.  Cat Café’s have sprung up in Asia and Europe alike.  Animals are now invited to practise yoga and meditation with fellow human practitioners.  After all much of the inspiration for yoga and martial arts postures and movements come from animals.  You don't believe that?  Just watch this bear practise her morning stretches! J

This rise in pet numbers indicates a significant shift in the way we look at our humble companions - we have started to acknowledge the fact that animals provide us with an important service.  

They are able to support us in creating a loving responsible environment, normalize everyday stresses and overall, boost our sense of happiness and wellbeing.  

Hence they merit our greatest respect.

Share your thoughts with us about how animals support our wellbeing.  Send in photos of your favourite pet/therapist/companion and tell us about how they help you to heal and relax.

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