Pets can help us through the darkest days


Like everyone else, my holiday season has been haunted by thoughts of the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Those that died. Those that survived. Their families. I think of them sitting in their homes. Did they already have their Christmas trees up and decorated that day? Were the Jewish families saving the best presents for the final nights of Chanukah? Then, being who I am, doing what I do, my next thought is “I hope every family in Newtown has a pet.” It’s not a frivolous thought, nor an unscientific one. Studies have documented what many of us know intuitively. Having pets is good for human beings. Not pet rocks or cyber-pets but real, warm, living things.

Fascination with animals seems to be an almost universal trait among children. Scientists speculate this may be an innate behavior evolved over millennia when being in relationship with certain animals might have improved survival. Cavemen who welcomed wild canines to scavenge scraps by their fire might, in return, have had the advantage of other dangerous predators being kept at bay. Mothers who invited felines into their homes had their families protected from contact with disease-carrying rodents like rats. Wherever it comes from, being close to animals is documented to be beneficial in many ways.

In the 1960s, an American child psychologist named Boris Levinson happened to notice the positive effect the accidental presence of his dog had on one of his young patients. He began using animals in counseling sessions, calling it “pet facilitated therapy’ and even dubbed the animals “co-therapists.” He felt this technique was especially helpful for children who were non-verbal, autistic, withdrawn, obsessive compulsive, or otherwise challenged.

The concept, however, was not new. One of the first documented uses of animals to aid humans, emotionally and psychologically, was a program in Gheel, Belgium, in the ninth century where people with disabilities helped care for farm animals as part of their treatment. In the eighteenth century the Quakers used animal care as a form of therapy for the insane at the York Retreat in England. Even Florence Nightingale and Sigmund Freud touted the benefits of interacting with animal companions.

Pets provide an opportunity to give and receive nurturing, something all people, young and old, need in their lives. Pets give unconditional, non-judgemental affection. They provide fun, laughter, spontaneity. For many people, an animal may be the only confidant they trust with their deepest emotions and secrets. All these interactions help build feelings of trust, self-esteem, responsibility, competence, autonomy, and empathy.

Physical contact with animals is soothing, reducing blood pressure, lowering cortisol levels, and causing a person’s body to release the hormone oxytocin. According to veterinarian Elizabeth Ormerod in her article, The Role of Pets in Institutions: Child Development and Animals in School, “oxytocin stimulates social interaction and promotes bonding by increasing trust, improved ability to interpret social cues and by reducing anxiety.”

Who knew how much that hamster or bunny in your child’s classroom had to contribute? “Animal-assisted intervention” (AAI) is becoming more and more common in many venues, both as therapeutic modality and simply good educational strategy. School pets have been shown to help both mainstream students and those with special needs have improved academic achievement, increased motivation to learn, and better interpersonal relationships. The experience can lead to animal-related hobbies or careers. Special needs teachers have reported that classroom pets have a calming effect on their pupils, leading to improved behavior and cooperation, extended concentration, lowered stress, and increased engagement of withdrawn children. Animals are used with similar benefits in programs with adults in prisons.

It’s not just the classroom gerbil and the family dog who help. Therapeutic horseback riding programs, like the Island’s own Rising Tide, have had remarkable results. In an article about the use of horses with people with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Marietta Schulz, the author says, “on a horse, all people enter into a nonverbal dialogue; the so-called “movement dialogue” which cannot be ignored.” People who have difficulty communicating with other humans sometimes have an almost instant simpatico on this nonverbal level with a horse, a dog, a cat. For any child, a pet can provide a constant, a companion that can be relied on through difficult times, through divorcing parents, tumultuous adolescence, academic and social struggles. Studies have shown that a young person who has a close bond with a dog is less likely to take drugs, join a gang, or commit a crime.

Which brings us back to Newtown. I do not think I believe in evil, not in the way some use the word to describe the perpetrator of this awful crime. I believe in gun control, but I don’t know if that would have mattered much in this scenario. I know that close contact with animals helps children build empathy and a reverence for life, and lessens feelings of isolation. Now I am not saying this tragedy could have been averted by simple pet therapy — just that animals can play an important and effective role in childrens’ development, especially those with difficulties. Sadly, pets also can serve as sentinels for abnormal behavior. A child who intentionally hurts a pet needs immediate professional assistance because this can be a sign of serious emotional problems.

Finally, the loss of a pet is often a child’s first experience with death, a way for them to learn how to grieve. But the families of Newtown do not get to do that. They don’t get to start with a little goldfish funeral. Parents don’t get to walk children tenderly, hand in hand, day by day, through the gradual decline and passing of an aged cat. There is nothing gentle about what they are going through. I can only hope that those in mourning have the gift of a purring cat curled up beside them, or a dog’s furry head resting consolingly on their knee. I wish them, I wish all of us, the comfort of companionship and abiding love in the coming year.