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PO Box 858 Firestone, CO 80520

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By Jenna Drennen

Jenna Drennen with her two cats and two dogs

This year has been a challenge‭, ‬to say the least‭. ‬As my family begins to enjoy a summer marked by renewed hope and a return to normalcy‭, ‬the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be brightening a little more each day‭. ‬Looking back at the hurdles we’ve overcome navigating a global pandemic‭, ‬I often wonder how my family got through it in one piece and relatively unscathed‭. ‬Taking a mental inventory of the resources and coping tools that served us best over the last 14‭ ‬months‭, ‬four things stand out miles above the rest‭, ‬and they all have fur and four legs‭. ‬My house feels a bit like a zoo‭, ‬and our lively pack of animals consisting of two dogs and two cats keeps us on our toes‭. ‬I’ve often questioned my motivation for continually adding animals to our already full household‭. ‬After enduring the emotional roller coaster the past year produced‭, ‬I don’t question the desire for a house full of animals anymore‭. ‬My pets grounded us through the pandemic and offered my family access‭ ‬to joy‭, ‬connection‭, ‬and stability amidst a period of loneliness‭, ‬uncertainty‭, ‬and fear‭. ‬My animals are not just cherished members of the family but skilled therapists‭, ‬and each of them serves as a light shining through the darkness‭. ‬In acknowledging how vital our‭ ‬“zoo”‭ ‬is to my family’s mental health‭, ‬it comes as no surprise that animal-assisted therapy continues to be one of the most effective evidence-based approaches to improving mental and physical health‭.‬

The mental health benefits of pet ownership and animal-assisted therapeutic techniques are well documented‭. ‬Studies indicate the‭ ‬simple act of petting a dog or cat creates an automatic relaxation response by releasing serotonin and oxytocin‭. ‬These hormones‭ ‬can play a part in elevating mood and lowering anxiety‭. ‬Frequently serving as a catalyst for the therapeutic process‭, ‬therapy animals‭ (‬and pets in general‭) ‬provide comfort‭, ‬escape‭, ‬and a welcome reprieve from stress and loneliness‭. ‬Animal-assisted therapy‭ ‬has even been shown to assist in recalling memories and sequencing temporal events in patients with traumatic brain injuries or‭ ‬chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s‭. ‬

The physical benefits of animal-assisted therapy are equally numerous‭. ‬When combined with other therapeutic approaches‭, ‬interacting with animals can decrease blood pressure and slow breathing in anxious patients‭. ‬Allowing many people to better enjoy physical exercise‭, ‬pet ownership‭, ‬and pet-assisted therapies can also reduce pain and related symptoms‭, ‬leading to a potential reduction in medication‭. ‬Animal-assisted therapy is even an effective technique in aiding language development and social interaction in children on the Autism spectrum‭.‬

When assessing evidence-based substance abuse treatment options‭, ‬animal-assisted therapy is frequently integrated into many mainstream treatment programs‭. ‬Coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy and 12-step programming‭, ‬treatment facilities use a broad spectrum of animals as catalysts for the therapeutic process‭. ‬Patients with a traumatic background who simultaneously endure extreme physical and emotional stress often find interacting with animals to be a welcome distraction from the cravings and triggers‭ ‬common during early recovery‭. ‬Equine therapy is a standard facet of many substance abuse treatment programs‭. ‬It teaches patients how to manage their behavioral and emotional responses by better understanding the horse’s cues and mirrored responses‭. ‬Interacting and caring for horses gives patients new to recovery the opportunity to work on communication skills‭, ‬improve self-awareness and social awareness while cultivating self-responsibility‭. ‬Equine therapy is even effective in managing impulse control while practicing appropriate boundary setting‭.‬

Understanding the scientific foundations behind the mental health benefits of interacting with animals allows me to better recognize how crucial pet ownership is to my own mental health‭. ‬My sweet dogs and cats were my greatest assets and tools in battling‭ ‬the loneliness‭, ‬anxiety‭, ‬and depression that threatened to cripple me this year‭. ‬They offered my family the connection and community we were so badly lacking and met us with unwavering love and affection when we needed it most‭. ‬During a time when traditional forms of therapy were unavailable or less effective‭, ‬my pets stepped in and proved themselves to be the best therapists I’ve ever had‭. ‬When I was in tears‭, ‬my pets made me laugh out loud‭. ‬When I was seething with rage‭, ‬my pets brought a smile to my face‭. ‬When I was emotionally or physically exhausted‭, ‬my pets gifted me renewed energy‭. ‬My cats even have the power to stave off‭ ‬a panic attack when they lay on my chest and purr‭. ‬This affectionate act never ceases to create a relaxation response as the pressure and vibration ground me back into my body and the moment‭. ‬So on days when it feels like my whole life revolves around cleaning up pet hair and cat litter‭, ‬I’m reminded that those pets make my life whole‭.‬

Jenna lives in Firestone with her husband‭, ‬two kids‭, ‬and a house full of animals‭. ‬She enjoys‭, ‬running‭, ‬gardening‭, ‬and climbing mountains in her spare time‭.‬