After a stressful day this week, I went to visit my friend Patty. She wrapped her Chihuahua, Lucy, in a blanket and set her on my lap. I petted her and watched her eyelids sag closed as she fell asleep with her chin resting on my knee. In a few minutes, she’d smoothed my rough, ragged edges and made me relax. Fur therapy, I call it. It’s the healing power of pets.
The grace of healing is a major theme in my novel, An Unexpected Grace. Lila, the main character, and Grace, a golden retriever, help each other recover from trauma and abuse. Lila provides a stable home for Grace and slowly coaxes her to trust. Grace boosts Lila through “attunement,” a process that many of us have surely experienced with our own pets when they watch us, feel our distress, get in sync with it, and invariably try to help us.
I’ve interviewed countless people who have told me about their kitty nuzzling their neck and licking away their tears, or their dog putting his head in their lap, the best he could hug them without hands or arms. One woman was going through chemo, and, discouraged and exhausted, she fell asleep on her sofa. When she woke, she was covered with Frisbees, tennis balls, stuffed animals, a squeaky carrot, and a rubber duck. Her dog, Chuckles, had brought her the entire contents of his toy basket to cheer her. She said, “He gave me everything he had.”
Animals’ soothing presence has been shown to decrease cortisol, a stress hormone, and to increase dopamine and serotonin, hormones associated with wellbeing and calm. Fur therapy also lowers our blood pressure and heart rates. Hospital patients visited by dogs and cats report less pain, and people with cats at home have 40 percent less risk of a heart attack.
The sound frequency of cat purrs can help heal infections, soft tissue injuries, and even broken bones – to say nothing of frayed nerves. No wonder Florence Nightingale brought animals to mental hospitals, and handlers arrived at Sandy Hook with golden retrievers like Grace to comfort the terrified children.
Has an animal ever helped you heal? I’ll bet the answer is yes.