April 3rd, 2011
Humans and animals share an ancient history of co-dependence, but this relationship extends far beyond domestication for food and labor purposes. The medical field, for example, utilized leeches and maggots for centuries, if not millennia. More modern times see a broader selection of animals helping their human partners through many different permanent and temporary conditions. Such admirable creatures as well as those taking the time to train them for the good of mankind rightfully deserve however many accolades people can give.
Easily the most common type of therapy animal — and probably the one that always pops into peoples’ heads — are those working as assistants to the disabled and elderly. Dogs make for especially adroit companions, and organizations such as Assistance Dogs International devote their time and resources to training these amazing animals to better serve those needing of their help. Most probably think of these venerable canines as guides for the blind, but they also assist those in wheelchairs, the elderly and individuals with other sensory or physical impairments who face down difficult times getting around. Although extremely common, dogs aren’t the only animals used to make life easier for the elderly and/or disabled. Monkeys, too, provide similar, though not identical, services. Their natural agility, dexterity and intelligence make them ideal for scrambling into out-of-reach spots for desired items. Many also learn how to feed and wash their human friends!
Animal assistance and therapy completely transcends the merely physical. For those suffering mental and emotional trauma, the presence of a gentle animal helps quell some of the pain. While not a complete replacement for psychological care, allowing individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder to spend some time with a therapy dog, cat or horse provides an amazing supplement to routine treatment. Soldiers returning from war, for example, respond positively to their exposure to dogs — just petting, playing with and running alongside them fills them with the endorphins and energy necessary for healing. Beyond PTSD, therapy animals also provide warm companionship for the bipolar, depressed and anxious as well. Individuals with developmental disorders, such as autism, find some of their negative emotions soothed with exposure to horses. Also used in some physical therapy, these extraordinary equines play an integral role in helping people on the autism spectrum fortify their socialization skills. In addition to alleviating much of the depression and anxiety associated with the conditions, of course.
Simply owning a pet also offers up a couple of medical perks, even with animals without any kind of specialized training. Cats, for example, may help children with asthma improve their respiratory functions and lower cholesterol levels (and subsequently reduce the risk of a heart attack) — among other things. Along with relieving mental anguish associated with various psychological and developmental disorders, keeping a beloved pet of any species certainly makes life a whole lot less lonely. Many elder care facilities provide homes for animals eager to mingle with the patients and plaster big smiles on their faces. Oscar, a cat residing at the Steere House in Providence, Rhode Island, possesses the startling ability to sense when one of the residents is about to pass. Many of the patients suffer from dementia and great lonesomeness, and the little cat wanders into their rooms shortly before death to dispense solace. In the final moments of their lives, they feel love and gentle companionship rather than fear and isolation. And all thanks to the intuition of one inadvertent therapy animal.
Regardless of whether or not they receive any sort of formalized training, many different animals provide their human partners with more than just their friendship. Whether chewing up decaying flesh on a serious wound, helping a blind individual better navigate the streets, socializing an autistic child, comforting a dying elder or something else entirely, these amazing creatures make life that much better for often marginalized demographics. But their selfless efforts do not go unrewarded, at least in general. Gracious owners make sure companions receive sufficient shelter, love and nourishment as thanks for the enjoyment and assistance in making life flow just that much easier.
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