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Animals as Healers 

It was risky explaining to an editor a few months back why I wouldn't make the deadline for submitting an article. For weeks my house had served as hospice for a dying friend, and in the final two days I turned off the phone, shut down the computer, and sat or slept near my friend until he passed. Reasonable explanation - except that the friend was a cat. (Thank you, Dear Editor, for granting that extension without judgment.)

I've since discovered support groups, Web sites, and even 24-hour hotlines to help people through the loss of a pet - companion animals are that important to many of us. It hasn't always been so. Our millennia-long relationship with the furred, feathered, finned, and otherwise differently constructed has been wildly diverse. To us they have been divine beings or devils, beautiful or abhorrent, food or friend or both. Classic extremes are the revered cats, fish, birds, and beetles of ancient Egyptians, compared to the animals (and many people) debased and tortured during the Inquisition.

Animals have always been useful to have around, providing food, clothing, tools, fuel, muscle-power, transportation, and models for the design of machinery and manmade materials. Now they are also experimental subjects and living factories that produce medicines, replacement hormones, tissues, and organs. But animals have impacted the human spirit as well. Indigenous people, for example, attribute both worldly and otherworldly powers and wisdom to animals. Totem animals are allies that make the human whole, as does identifying the animal clan to which a person belongs. Many people outside of indigenous traditions also view a respectful relationship to the animal kingdom as enriching, even essential, to the human psyche.

Kindred Spirits, by veterinarian Allen Schoen, recounts dozens of studies and stories of animals that helped heal the body or spirit of children, the elderly, and people who are ill, depressed, or impaired. The book's subtitle summarizes: The remarkable bond between humans and animals can change the way we live. In one study of nursing home residents, 75 percent of men and 67 percent of women said their dogs were their only friends. Some people describe a pet as their motivation for recovering from an illness or injury.

A pet in the household, or even a temporary visit from an animal, has been documented to lower blood pressure and anxiety; reduce the need for doctor visits and medicines; enhance cognition, movement, and quality of life among the elderly; improve impairments after injury, aid in socialization and rehabilitation of at-risk youth and of psychiatric patients; assist children who have learning disorders or differences; increase likelihood of survival during the year following a heart attack; and open communication with people who are grieving, abandoned, or abused.

Susan and Ron Rozman of Esopus adopted their dog Mootsie, a black lab/hound mix, as a young pup. Around the same time, Susan was diagnosed with cancer. Mootsie was a huge aid for Susan as she endured a first course of chemotherapy, then a stronger, more difficult one. Ron recalls how Mootsie "made Susan laugh every day, as lousy as she was feeling, by just being himself."

"Mootsie was a happy-go-lucky dog who was really a goofball," Susan says. "He could be such a pain in the ass one minute, and then was a really compassionate healer the next minute. He wanted to go in and out of the house all the time, but when I was feeling bad, he would hang by me all day. When I'd just come back from chemo, he would come over and want to smooch and snuggle. For the first two nights after chemo he would sleep by me."

Susan's second course of chemo cleared any sign of cancer, but two days after that news, Mootsie was hit by a car and died. The family concurs that Mootsie seems to have come into their lives to help Susan through that period. Now there's a new puppy, Biggie Smalls. "Half basset hound and half something else, a short guy with a big attitude," says Ron. Hopefully Biggie will be able to follow in Mootsie's pawprints, because Susan has a recurrence of cancer and more chemo to deal with.

Hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric wards, schools, and other facilities for people in need of special care or training are opening their doors to animals. Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck has hosted animals at Thompson House (its on-site nursing home) for years, and has just begun to bring dogs into the hospital itself.

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