By Jenna Drennen
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.