Use of pets to de-stress is one of the reasons, experts say
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
No wonder about 85 million American households in the U.S. have animals, according to figures from Human Animal Bond Research Institute.
Whether it’s a pleasure horse or a pet poodle, an animal brings companionship, activity and a few health benefits, like lowered blood pressure and reduced risk of stroke and heart attack, according to numerous studies.
More people than ever have tapped into the benefits of emotional support animals and therapy animals, which can help with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many other mental health issues.
At Purpose Farm in Baldwinsville, Sandra Seabrook, her family and volunteers tend 11 acres and care for 40 rescued animals, including horses, donkeys, birds, pigs, and even a camel.
Seabrook and her husband, Howard, have a big heart for animals and also for children from troubled and at-risk households.
Every summer, they operate a mentoring program which brings each child in the program to the farm for 90 minutes once a week to learn animal care skills and, more importantly, life lessons on human relationships.
“We once had a horse with a wound and each kid took a turn washing it out, putting salve on it and wrapping it up,” Seabrook offered as an example. “It teaches empathy and responsibility.”
The children could identify with the horse as a victim that didn’t deserve the treatment it received. They also connect with the animals as living beings that don’t judge them.
“The ones we work with are rescues that came from neglected or abusive backgrounds,” she added. “They’re thankful to be where they are. We’re putting them out there and socializing them. They give unconditional love back.”
Whether horses or small pets, animals can help people work through less traumatic emotional issues as well. It’s all about the way in which animals connect to people.
“Pets love us unconditionally,” said Jodi Ann Mullen, Ph.D., professor at SUNY Oswego counseling and psychological services department, coordinator of mental health counseling at SUNY Oswego and owner of Integrative Counseling Services, PLLC in Oswego. “It fills a void for connection. You won’t be judged by a cow or a goat.”
Mullen thinks that because more people see the benefits of connections with animals, the interest in emotional support animals has increased.
Another of the reasons why animals provide so much comfort is that many people had a pet during childhood or at least stuffed animals. Mullen believes many pet owners turn to the familiarity of pets to find that comfort again.
Petting animals requires a gentle hand, soft words and a pleasant tone. Even making these changes for the sake of the animal seems to affect the human’s mood and measurable health statistics.
“Studies show that just petting a cat or dog reduces blood pressure 10 to 15 points,” said Scott Mooney, Ph.D., and co-founder of Beacon Psychological Services LLC in Oswego. “We see that a lot in regard to people being comforted by animals. The love and companionship can reduce stress. Emotional support animals have become a big thing.”
Purpose Farm was noted by USA Today as a top venue for goat yoga in 2017. The nonprofit farm has been using goat yoga sessions as a fundraiser. Mooney said that goat yoga became popular because “it’s a warm life and body connection with us. A connection with an animal is very helpful.”
Anyone seeking a farm animal “fix” can find it volunteering with the animals at Purpose Farm, even if they cannot keep large animals at their property. Like most other shelters, Purpose Farm welcomes the help.
Those who want but cannot have a dog or cat may volunteer at shelters caring for pets, walk a busy or elderly neighbor’s dog or offer to pet sit at a friend’s home.