They warm our hearts with their cuteness, and they make us laugh with their antics. They comfort us when we feel lonely, and shower us with their unconditional love. They teach us to take life easy and help us forget our worries. Animals have an uncanny ability to spread happiness, and it is no wonder we humans share a unique bond with them.
Besides spreading happiness, animals can also positively affect our wellbeing. A study conducted by Queen’s University Belfast lists out several benefits of being around animals. By simply being around animals or petting them, we can lower our blood pressure and heart rate, the study says. No wonder pet owners are comparatively less stressed when they’re around their furry companions. Also, by exposing us to allergens, animals can increase our immunity and thereby lower our risk of contracting allergies and lung diseases.
Naturally, service animals and animal-assisted therapies have become commonplace. Radhika Nair, a clinical psychologist, is one of the founders of Animal Angels Foundation. She and her therapy dogs have worked with children, adults and elderly with physical disabilities and psychological problems. She has observed that therapy animals improve patients’ social, emotional, and cognitive functioning. But above anything else, she has noticed, these animals help patients open-up and trust the therapist. She reveals, “I once worked with trafficked children who were abused sexually. They were so traumatised, they could not open-up or trust an adult anymore. However, they instantly bonded with our therapy dogs, and slowly felt safer opening up to me.”
From homes, hospitals and nursing homes to even prisons and psychiatric institutions, therapy and service animals have lent their support to improve people’s wellbeing. Here’s Soulveda listing a few famous and not-so-famous animals from around the world, honouring them for the services they’ve rendered.
Oscar, the cat
Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre in Rhode Island, USA, is a facility that treats elderly people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and other such illnesses. Oscar, now an 11-year-old fluffy black and white tabby cat, was only a kitten when he was adopted by the staff there. A therapy cat, he manages to strike a chord with patients and medical staff alike because of his mysterious gift. Oscar has the ability to predict when a resident is about to die. Upon identifying a dying patient, he curls up beside them and comforts them during their final moments of life. The incredible cat has gone to the aid of more than 50 dying patients there.
Dr David Dosa, a geriatrician at the centre, has written extensively about Oscar in his book Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat. He mentions an instance when physicians took Oscar to a patient that they thought was about to die. But Oscar simply refused to sit by that patient’s side. He chose instead to hang around another patient across the hall. To the staff’s surprise, the person Oscar sat with died first.
His predictions have been so accurate that Oscar’s mere presence by a patient’s bedside is viewed as an indicator of death by physicians. The staff then immediately notifies the patient’s family. Oscar’s gift helps families to be by their loved ones’ side during their final hours.
Buttercup, the pig
Buttercup is a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig who visits special-needs children with his owner Lois Brady, a speech pathologist in San Francisco. Pot-bellied pigs are considered clean, loving, and the fourth smartest animals in the world. Buttercup is more than smart; he is so calm by nature that he can easily withstand children’s aggressive behaviour. No wonder he is an instant hit with autistic children.
The pig shows children a few tricks and manages to rouse their curiosity. Even children who are unable to talk coherently try to interact with him, and attempt to greet him verbally. They even volunteer to take care of him. They feed him, walk him, and rest with him. By caring for Buttercup, these children learn to recognise their own needs, observes Brady in one of her blog posts.
Smiley was a therapy dog who warmed people’s hearts with his smile. This blind and dwarfed golden retriever was rescued from a puppy mill in Ontario, by a Veterinary technician Joanne George.
Magic, the miniature horse
Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses is a non-profit organisation based in Florida. Their horses are trained to work as service animals and help people who suffer from physical disability. They also work as therapy animals and comfort those who are traumatised because of natural disasters, loss or distressing events.
One of their horses, Magic, is especially good with terminal patients and those battling cancer. She has been a therapy horse for war veterans who have been through trying times. She has also worked as a service horse, helping amputated soldiers walk again with the help of prosthetic legs. Magic has also helped child trafficking victims feel safe and secure.
William, the donkey
Of all the animals that have been tamed, a donkey is perhaps one of the most intelligent creatures. The docile creature makes a very affectionate companion. The Donkey Sanctuary in England is an international charity that offers donkey-assisted therapies to children with physical, social, and behavioural disabilities. Their donkeys have mostly been rescued from a life of ill-treatment or neglect. The organisation rescues donkeys, while also offering assisted riding therapies to special-needs children. The donkeys are restored to health, even as they help these kids.
One such donkey was William D. He was neglected and starved before he found refuge at the sanctuary. Perhaps, that was why he empathised with children suffering from disabilities. Naturally, several autistic children have found comfort in William. Over the years, these children have learnt that they do not have to be perfect to be loved unconditionally.
Smiley, the dog
Smiley was a therapy dog who warmed people’s hearts with his smile. This blind and dwarfed golden retriever was rescued from a puppy mill in Ontario, by a Veterinary technician Joanne George. Understandably, the puppy was distressed. When Joanne could not find the blind puppy a home, she decided to adopt Smiley herself. As Smiley eventually felt more and more at home with her, his delightful personality surfaced. He almost always had a wide grin on his face which instantly spread happiness. This inspired Joanne to train him to become a therapy dog.
For more than a decade, Smiley spread love and happiness. He worked at a Canadian first aid training organisation called St. John’s Ambulance. During his tenure there, he visited nursing homes, hospitals and schools. He especially worked with special-needs children. Seeing the blind dog with a wide grin inspired many children to overcome their own disabilities. He taught them that they too can be productive and happy despite all odds.