News and Opinions about MS, Health & Disability

Therapy animals are more than just dogs

Most people think of dogs when turning their attention to therapy animals, but other domestic creatures are also used. Cats, horses, ‘smallies’ such as rabbits or guinea pigs, reptiles, and birds have all been used successfully.

People with illnesses such as MS, Alzheimer’s, and autism, plus conditions such as PTSD, have all benefited from animal therapy.

I grew up surrounded by dogs as my mother bred corgis. She was an avid dog show exhibitor and international judge. Over the years, I became aware of the good that could result from a dog’s closeness. Yes, companionship, but so much more.

Since then, I have had dogs of virtually all shapes and sizes, from a small Jack Russell Terrier, to a large Welsh Sheepdog. All have been friendly and loving – with the amazing ability to make you feel better when you are down.

These days, Lisa and I have cats as pets.

Therapy animals’ meaningful bond

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Brothers and Pet Partners’ co-founders Michael and Bill McCulloch (Pic: Pet Partners).

Pet Partners co-founder Michael J McCulloch, MD, says, “We believe that the human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial relationship that improves the physical, social, and emotional lives of those we serve. We are motivated by connection, compassion, and a commitment to sharing this meaningful bond with everyone who can benefit from time spent with an animal.

“In an age of research when it is tempting to reduce emotions to biochemical reactions and to rely heavily on the technology of medicine, it is refreshing to find that a person’s health and well-being may be improved by prescribing contact with other living things.”

Cats are used for therapy, particularly for anyone who is afraid of dogs. The problem with cats as therapy animals is that they have a significant independent streak and cannot really be trained. At least, not easily.

You may see them at large in nursing homes and the like as they move from room to room, visiting the patients, and sometimes snuggling up to be petted or curling up for a nap. In one well-known case, a Maine Coon cat helped a girl with autism to speak once more.

Pooka – our live-in therapy

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Our beloved, gentle, Maine Coon. Pooka, April 1998 – October 2017. Sadly missed.

Actually, talking of Maine Coons is difficult at the moment because our Pooka has just died. Lisa gave her a home when the kitten was six months old and she lived a long and happy life. Pooka was an ‘old lady’ of 19½ when she died.

Pooka was born in Florida, USA’s ‘Sunshine State’, in spring 1998, and moved to the less than sunny UK in 2012. She moved again, this time to live in the sun of southern Spain, in late 2015. In all that time, she was good natured, loving, and a pleasure to have as a companion. She died in her sleep with us nearby. Lisa and I both miss her.

She is survived by Prissy, a fellow Floridian, who is now 11 years old. But their characters are very different. Where Pooka was almost always slow, Prissy is more active. She even occasionally catches prey, much to our disgust. But she is equally as good natured and loves to sleep on our bed.

Proven health benefits of therapy animals

Wide Open Pets says: “We know how our pets help us get through life. Whether trained or not, owning and caring for pets provides a certain amount of therapy and proven health benefits.

“Most therapy animals are used for similar reasons. In hospitals they provide comfort, cheer, and companionship. Service animals take specific and necessary actions in the event of a medical emergency, or in counseling to provide comfort and relaxation.

“Animals can help children with learning disabilities as well as with anger management, mental health, and behavioral difficulties. There are even programs in place that use dogs to help children learn how to read.

“Animals are also commonly used in physical therapy to help with fine motor skills. Actions such as brushing, fastening a collar, and walking are where pet therapy can help,” it says.

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* * * * * is the personal website of Ian Franks, a freelance medical writer and editor for various health information sites. He enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor in the print media. He gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Ian received a diagnosis of MS in 2002 and now lives in the south of Spain. He uses a wheelchair and advocates on mobility and accessibility issues.