Pet therapy

A much loved family member recently finished a vicious course of chemo for a pernicious case of breast cancer. She faces several years worth of long term medication before she can be declared in remission. She’s now had several surgeries, and is doing very well. Recently, she returned to work in the business she is part owner of. Fortunately for her, she is one of the few Americans who is insured, and she also has a loving and supportive work environment–I am confident that her partners and employees are taking good care of her. Things were a bit hairy there for awhile, bringing one to wonder why lame things happen to awesome people, but with the support of her family, and her pets, she survived, and did very well.

Her local newspaper published a profile on her, as a busy professional woman recovering from cancer, and it was in the “pets corner.”

Now, what would pets have to do with cancer?

Well, this family member has three dogs. One of whom is behemoth. One of whom is small, and pesty, although we love her anyway. Another, a confiscated victim of animal abuse, is painfully shy and nervous. (And she doesn’t much fancy children, making her an animal after my own heart.) And apparently during a chemo session, a nurse noticed the picture of her dogs and said “oh, are you finding another home for them?”

“Why on earth would I do that,” I can imagine this family member saying.

And this is what the article was about–her dogs were every bit as crucial to the recovery as chicken soup and family members were. Because that’s what the dogs are–her family. They live with her, they sleep on her bed, and they sense when she’s not feeling well. Being a tenacious kind of lady, I can imagine she would have recovered without the dogs, but it would have been a longer and more stressful recovery. The dogs were there when all her helpers went home. The dogs took slow walks with her as she rediscovered the outside world. The dogs kept her warm at night, and gave her a reason to get up every morning. They were, I’m sure, having stayed with them, powerful motivators.

Animal therapy is widely recognized and practiced–therapy animals visit hospitals and elderly torture centres (excuse me, elder not care homes). Sometimes they are unusual examples of their species–a chicken recently received ASPCA recognition for her work in therapy. Sometimes they are big fuzzy dogs, or soft mellow bunnies. But the end effect is the same–hospitals which allow therapy animals in often have healthier, happier patients. A loving touch can brighten your day when things aren’t going so well, and that’s the idea behind bringing therapy animals into unusual places. Like a New Orleans prison, for example, where hardened murderers fostered displaced hurricane victims.

I was recently faced with a choice: go to graduate school without my animals, or remain where I am with them. Obviously, it didn’t seem like much of a choice to me, and I willingly set aside graduate school to stay with my animals. A number of people were surprised by this (although they shouldn’t have been), and a lot of people gave me a great deal of grief over it. But what they didn’t understand is the same thing that stupid chemo nurse didn’t understand: our animals are our children. Parents going through a difficult time are not usually asked if they are going to take their children to animal control. Not only are we attached to the animals we live our lives with, but they also help us live better, longer, healthier lives. Animals are important to our mental well being.

I wonder why it is that we view animals as second class citizens, and as a society we don’t respect people who place their animals on a par with themselves. Companion animals have been a part of human existence for a very long time, and probably will continue to be well into the future. They are clearly beneficial (unless you are pregnant and cleaning the cat box), and they enrich our lives. Every day with my animals is wonderful–every day away from them is a trial. Much, I imagine, as it is for parents. Yet because my companions are animals, not human children, I will never encounter the same respect and courtesy parents do. Because I make choices based on their welfare, as well as my own, I am criticized–yet somehow I doubt parents are questioned when they consider the welfare of their children. We live in an anthropocentric world, and it is never more starkly obvious than when talking about animals, and animal rights.