top of page

Healing Power of Animals

"Animals are more than faithful companions. Research shows they can make all the difference to our health and well-being"

Creature Comforts

About two weeks after she got her dog, Taylor, Elizabeth Trestin fell out of her wheelchair. Trestin, 39 has been quadriplegic for twenty years following a diving accident. Taylor, a handsome yellow Labrador retriever, is a graduate of the training school run by Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit group based in Santa Rosa, California, that gives service dogs to handicapped people all over the country.

At the time of the accident, Taylor knew sixty commands: He could pick up an object as thin as a dime from the floor and give it to Trestin, an exercise that she could never do alone; he could open and close doors, turn lights on and off, press elevator buttons too high for her to reach from her wheelchair, pull her up hills in her chair and, to the astonishment of the tellers behind the tall counters at her bank, appear at the bank windows with her deposits in his mouth, place them on the counter and wait politely for the receipt, after which he would droop down and offer it to her. But the fine-tuning was up to Trestin, and as she lay sprawled helplessly on the front deck of her house in Long Beach, New York, she remembered that she hadn't yet gotten around to teaching him the word for and location of her telephone.

As Taylor stood over her anxiously licking her face, Trestin did the only thing she could do. "Taylor, get the phone," she told him. Taylor ran into the house and brought her a beach shovel. She repeated the command, and he returned with a shoe. On the next command, a towel, then the TV remote control, two paperback books, more shoes, and anything else he could reach that was loose, including, eventually, the telephone. Trestin, who has use of her arms and hands, then called a friend who came to the rescue.

Without the dog, she says, she would have been in the dangerous position of having to enlist help from a stranger passing on the street. "Taylor has given me independence she says. "And besides that, he's my best friend."

That's the great cliché about dogs, but other animals have served people with the same dedication as Taylor for at least 15,000 years. The first were domesticated wolves, ancestors of the dog, whose remains have been found around prehistoric human settlements in the Middle East. Presumably, those wolf-dogs were protectors and hunters as well as backup food sources during lean times.

Since then, many species have been pressed into our employ, and the list of how they have served us is long and impressive; indeed, they've done a great deal more for us than we have for them. They've supplied us with transportation, pulled our ploughs, helped us hunt, guarded our property, herded animals, routed pests from our farms, tracked lost children and fugitives, sniffed out everything from bombs to truffles, rescued us from disasters, given us sport and other entertainment, guided the blind, aided the handicapped, been subjects for scientific experiments, made some of us rich and performed spectacular, lifesaving rescues of people without being asked. And, like Taylor, they've been our best friends; Sixty-one percent of American homes now have pets, including 54 million dogs, 59 million cats, 16 million birds, 7.3 million reptiles and 12 million fish.

"Animals don't care about the things that usually make people beautiful, successful, attractive and popular," says Aaron Katcher, M.D., a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, who has pioneered the use of animals in psychotherapy. "If you've lost everything in the stock market, they don't care. If you're old and incontinent, they don't care. If you're a beggar, as long as you scrounge enough food for you and your animal and you don't mistreat it, it's going to be quite happy with you."

Healing with Animals

But that extraordinary, nonjudgmental and devoted friendship is not all that animals contribute to our lives. In the last two decades, scientists have discovered that the bond we form with pets can make an enormous difference to our health-sometimes the difference between life and death. Here are some of their findings:

A 1999 study showed that a pet's calming influence is better at controlling high blood pressure than the common anti-hypertension drug lisinopril. Research done in 1992 in Australia revealed that pet owners are less likely than people without pets to develop heart disease. And a 1980 study at Brooklyn College found that pet owners who have heart attacks live longer than coronary attack victims without pets.Studies at University of California at Davis and at UCLA revealed that pet owners of all ages went to their doctors less often, had more fun and felt more secure than those who had no pets.Nursing homes in New York, Missouri and Texas reported that when they brought animals and plants into their environments, patient death rates dropped by an amazing 40 percent and the need for medication decreased from $3.80 to $1.18 per patient per day. Supporting research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center showed that pet birds reduced the depression and loneliness that elderly people experienced when they were hospitalized or put in old-age homes.A variety of research shows that children who have pets learn compassion and responsibility, think more independently, have more self-esteem, have better coping skills, are more sensitive to other people and have less stress, aggression and sadness than do kids without pets.A Miami study found that the presence of animals in inner-city classrooms dramatically lowered truancy rates and increased children's test scores.Separate studies show that children with autism and with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder improve when they have contact with pets.Czech scientists who have studied the effects of isolation on people say that the presence of animals is so essential to human well being that they should be included in long-term manned space flights. According to the scientists, this would buffer the crews against social and emotional tensions and even enhance their creativity.

Therapeutic Programs

As animals' role in human health is increasingly understood, programs utilizing animals of various kinds are springing up across America to help people deal with specific problems-everything from assisting them in relearning to walk to helping them deal with deep-rooted emotional difficulties. Though certain animals such as dolphins have been in the limelight for their purportedly therapeutic properties, dolphins are not unique. "It doesn't matter what the animal is," says Katcher of University of Pennsylvania. " A hermit crab, a turtle, a gerbil, all sorts of little animals are just as effective and less expensive to keep."

And even a large animal such as a horse can be of enormous benefit to adults and children suffering from social and emotional problems as well as physical conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism, brain injury and paralysis. About 650 equine-therapy riding centers are now members of the North American Riding for the Handicapped association, a national organization that offers accreditation to centers that pass a peer-review process.

Many of these equine-therapy programs take advantage of the fact that horseback riding teaches balance and coordination and helps to strengthen and lengthen muscles. Because a horse's rhythmic movement causes its rider's body to mimic the same motions and exercise the same muscles that are used in walking, some disabled people have learned to walk through this kind of therapy.

Horses are also used in programs with adults and children to help them resolve a variety of psychological problems. Frightened, disturbed children, for example, gain enormous self-confidence when they learn to sit on the back of a powerful, 1,200-pound animal and control it. Clea Newman of Pegasus Therapeutic Riding, which runs equine-therapy programs in Connecticut and New York, explains why horses work so well: "horses are very giving animals," says the daughter of actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. "We had one kid in the program who, because he was autistic, kept punching the horse he rode in the neck all the time. The horse never once objected in any way. He just seemed to understand."

Sam Ross intuitively understood what animals could do for mistreated children years before the notion had widespread scientific credibility. Back in 1947, he founded Green Chimneys, a farm and boarding school sixty miles north of New York City. Today Green Chimneys thrives as a highly regarded school and psychiatric facility for at-risk and special-needs children who learn about trust and love by developing relationships with animals.

Although Green Chimneys' staff is filled with psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and special-education teachers, Ross, a chipper, white-haired man of 71, is only half joking when he says the animals are really "our therapists." He makes sure they are everywhere: Dogs and cats, as well as small creatures in cages and tanks, live with the children in their dorms. Other animals, including injured wildlife such as owls and hawks that can't be rehabilitated, spend time in the classrooms. And on the farm that sits atop a hill overlooking the campus live many species of friendly and well-groomed pigs, llamas, cows, goats, chickens, ducks, rabbits and horses-all a testament to the care and affection the children lavish on them.

"When you have children who are distrustful, who have been double-crossed, who have been mistreated, told that they're total failures, who have been thrown away by society, it's much easier for them to relate to an animal than a peer or an adult," says Ross. "But once they have made a relationship with an animal and feel good about it, they want to share that. The animal teaches the child nurturing and is the catalyst, the bridge, for accepting another person."

In a totally different setting, Elizabeth Teal, a New York City behavior consultant, is a volunteer for Pet Partners, an national organization run by the Renton, Washington-based Delta Society, a group devoted to promoting the animal/human bond. Pet Partners arranges for volunteers to bring their pets to people in institutions.

On one visit to a Manhattan school for developmentally disabled adults, Teal brought Pekoe, her big, floppy orange cat. Even the pupils who were so extremely disabled that they walked in a shuffle, had expressionless faces and could not speak came alive with smiles and joyous yelps as they reached out to touch Pekoe. While he brought them pleasure, he was also a learning tool. "Make the sign for cat," instructed Teal, "and then you can pet him." Eager to touch him, they either did or tried, which Teal noted, isn't always the case when only their human teachers are present.

In Purdy, Washington, at a state prison for women felons, service dogs are raised and trained by inmates under the Prison Pet Partnership Program (PPPP), which began as a sister program of Pet Partners. The PPPP, for which only model prisoners qualify, not only helps fill the public demand for service dogs, it teaches the inmates skills that provide them with an occupation when they are released.

But for these women, the biggest bonanza may well be the emotional benefits they receive from working with the dogs. During the six to eight months it takes to turn the animals into accredited service dogs, the dogs live in the cells with their inmate-trainers. "For a lot of them, this is the first relationship they've been involved with that has not been either abusive or conditional," says Jeanne Hampl who formerly ran the program and served on PPPP's board of directors.

Hampl adds that while most of the program's inmates are mothers and many see their kids monthly during regular prison visits, their troubled backgrounds have left many of them clueless about parenting. But through their work with the dogs, Hampl says, "they learn the difference between correction and punishment. They learn the power of positive reinforcement to get the behaviors they want rather than using negative reinforcement to stop bad behaviors. Those are parenting skills, and I see them at work in the visiting room."

Besides learning how to train dogs, the inmates also staff the prison's boarding and grooming facility, which serves the local community. That brings them into contact with the public, which requires that they develop social skills. When they leave prison, the women are fully qualified, experienced pet technicians. But here is the real proof that the dog program works: While the overall recidivism rate at the prison is 32 percent, not a single woman who has gone into the PPPP program since it started in 1988 has been a repeat offender.

Across the country, nursing homes are taking to heart the lessons about animals and bringing them in to live with their human populations. One hundred seventy such institutions follow the Eden Alternative, a program based on the precepts of geriatrician William Thomas, M.D. According to Thomas, the "three plagues" of long-term care institutions-"loneliness, helplessness and boredom" - are alleviated by close and continuous contact with animals, plants and children.

At Center Crest, the county nursing home in Bellefont, Pennsylvania, "Edenization" has brought four dogs, thirteen cats, more than sixty birds and countless fish to live among 240 elderly people; the dogs and cats even sleep with residents who request them. Judy Dugan, R.N.C., Center Crest's head nurse, is enthusiastic about the difference the animals have made. She describes how, until a couple of years ago, a dozen depressed patients once languished, refusing all attempts to engage them in a group activity designed to alleviate their despair. Then one day a local pet store went out of business and gave the home a bunch of single fish in bowls at a very low price. Staffers gave each of the depressed residents a fish. A month later staff members once again invited the residents to join the group activity. This time, everyone said yes. "And all it took was one little fish," says a gratified Dugan. "I'd say that's a very powerful message."

The Frontiers of Animal-Based Medicine

Fish may cure depression, but that's nothing compared to other ways in which animals can do what medical science only dreams about. One of the newest discoveries is that some animals can foretell seizures and warn their owners in time for them to find a safe place to sit or lie down.

Susan Duncan, R.N., the director of a national service-dog center for the Delta Society, used to be skeptical about this ability. Her skepticism ended, however, when she stayed with a woman friend who had several seizures daily. Without fail, she reports, the woman's dog alerted her before every episode.

Duncan says animals give such warnings by altering their behavior: Dogs generally bark at an unusual pitch, whine or paw their owners. She's also had a report of an iguana that flicks its tail in an uncharacteristic way and of a cat that paws its owner in an atypical manner.

Another astonishing finding is that some dogs with particularly acute sense of smell can even detect cancer. In 1989, a British physician wrote a letter to the medical journal The Lancet describing how a dog owned by one of his women patients kept sniffing at a mole on her leg even when it was covered by clothes. Finally the dog tried to bite off the mole. With that, the woman went to Kings College Hospital in London, where the growth was found to be a malignant melanoma.

That story was read by Armand Cognetta, M.D., a Tallahassee, Florida, dermatologist, who contacted dog trainer Duane Pickel to see whether he was interested in setting up a pilot study. Pickel enlisted a standard schnauzer named George, a former bomb-detecting police dog, in a two-year experiment to test the dog's cancer-sniffing talents.

George was tested with both melanoma and lung cancer samples and was correct an impressive 99.7 percent of the time. "I can train a dog to find anything that smells different from the surrounding environment," says Pickel, who has been a trainer for 38 years. Scientists say that cancer, like anything else, has a distinctive odor.

A large, more rigorously controlled study is needed before it is known how well some dogs can detect cancer and whether they could do so before a malignancy-whether inside the body or on its surface, like melanoma-could be detected by medical technology. But if such a study bears out the pilot results, says Jim Waller, a psychobiologist and neuroscientist at Florida State University, it could ultimately lead to huge savings and improved cure rates from early detection.

It's remarkable that even as scientific discoveries continue to improve our lives, animals still have so much to give us. Some animals, Like George the schnauzer, perform tasks that scientists cannot, while others, like Trestin's beloved Labrador, Taylor, provide unconditional love and friendship. And they make it all look so easy. It's ironic: Animals keep us human.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page