The People's Perspective on Medicine

Show 1028: How Animals Can Help Us Heal

Therapy animals and service dogs can help improve life for people with emotional and physical challenges.
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How Animals Can Help Us Heal

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How can animals break through the barriers created by traumatic events and help people heal? We’ll learn about horses that interact with people with dementia, and dogs who visit patients in hospitals.

Therapy Animals and Service Dogs:

We’ll also find out how service dogs can improve life for people with disabilities. If you have a story to share about a service animal or a therapeutic interaction with an animal, Joe and Terry invite you to share it. Call 888-472-3366 between 7 and 8 am EDT on March 19, 2016 or email

This Week’s Guests:

Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, MSW, PhD, is an associate professor and the John A. Hartford Faculty Scholar in the College of Social Work at the Ohio State University. Her study was published in Anthrozoos in 2014.

Charles Miller, DVM, is a veterinarian in Durham, NC.

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The podcast of this program will be available the Monday after the broadcast date. The show can be streamed online from this site and podcasts can be downloaded for free for four weeks after the date of broadcast. After that time has passed, digital downloads are available for $2.99. CDs may be purchased at any time after broadcast for $9.99.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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There are now dogs that can sniff out gluten to help the owner stay away from foods that may contain gluten or even contaminated with gluten. I know one woman who has such a dog and it has helped her heal from what was thought to be refractory celiac disease. She now trains these dogs.

It is sad but true that many, even most, rental properties will not allow even one small pet and those that will often require enormous non-refundable “pet deposits” and so deprive children and especially elderly adults the enjoyment and emotional support of a companion animal unless it has been certified as a “service animal” and for only specific reasons such as blindness etc. Not widely known or often enforced at one time it was required that any facility which made use of Federal funds in any form must allow one small animal. Health suggestions for elderly adults strongly suggest continued “social interaction” and caring for a companion animal should certainly qualify.

This makes a great deal of sense for many reasons. Depending on the malady the human has or the injury s/he has endured and from which they try to recover, non-humans are a safer alternative to help a person feel safe and genuinely loved.

It seems to me that part of why the human-animal companion combination works so well is because it’s been demonstrated that other species are as observant as are humans, and that they recognize human dysfunction.

Also, many animals exhibit an unconditional affinity with a human or familiar humans – possibly the first some humans have ever experienced such a thing. Trust is accorded the animal that cannot or will not be accorded to other humans. For humans who have been physically and/or psychologically abused/injured by others, and have to re/learn who they can trust and how to do this, a “therapy” animal could be a breakthrough facilitator.

But this also brings up a conversation about morality and ethics in terms of what is good for the other species enlisted to “help” humans since a human “helper” would receive some sort of compensation (pay). The (other) animals we recruit didn’t volunteer for this situation to “work” or us, they were drafted and they do not receive compensation (in the traditional sense) for services expected of them. These are “service” animals, and “working,” unlike the “pet” animal, who is simply a “companion by choice.” There are times when I question whether always in the animal’s best interest, and whether we are depriving them of a better life as a companion.

The discussion by the guest regarding her service dog in public and how an expression of benevolence, petting the dog, “gets in the way of him working” is illustrative of the principle considering how and why humans use other species. If we could determine the other species would rather be a “pet” and not “work,” then what? We may be close to in learning to communicate in ASL with other Great Apes, with sonar studies done with dolphins, and verbal comprehension studies done with Psittacines (parrots).

What if we discovered that they are helping us, but would rather not do that “job” as an expectation if they did not have to? Then what?

I bring this up for a couple of reasons and at a time when humans also explore artificial intelligence (AI) assistance, genetically modified organisms, and cloning. I would like to be sure that we’re not creating and maintaining more slave classes, and this IS something that does need to be considered.

It’s great that the other species are cooperative…at least, the domesticated, captive tame are. But do they have preferences? What if they do?

I agree animals bring much to our lives particularly the young and elderly. I have decided though no more animals after the 2 cats I have now. My son lives overseas and I do not have any neighbors or relatives that would take in my 2 (boys) cats. One cat I took in when the neighbor died. He had no one to take his cat in either.

Please do think how your cat/dog would be cared for should you predecease them. There are pet legacy plans through some animal rescue centres so do explore those. Or even consider leaving someone 10% each or more of your estate to take your animal/s in. Don’t leave them to become strays to die of thirst or hunger.

I am also concerned about predeceasing my pet. My local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a pet survivor placement program which I have signed up for. They request a yearly donation in any amount and something willed to them–any amount–to take care of their expenses in treating the animal and finding it a good home. They promise to make every effort to find the animal a good home.

I had a friend who had a very friendly cat and he particularly like the elderly. She took him on visits to nursing homes. Occasionally I went with them. One patient took Charley on her lap and quietly began talking about once having a cat. Her hand never stopped and that good old boy cat stayed nicely on her lap while she pet him. Workers at the home told us that was the first time she spoke in the several weeks that she had been there. Hopefully she continued to communicate after we left.

I am elderly now myself, not well. If I do not get out of bed in a timely fashion, one of my cats will come to check on me, ask what is wrong. Another, my ever hungry big boy cat, will come to the bed and demand food. We have learned to interpret those particular sounds he makes. They talk to us and sometimes to themselves; but never to each other. I cannot over emphasize the quality they add to our lives, well worth feeding them and cleaning the cat boxes (after five cats use them!). I have had a cat or several for over 50 years now, yearned after them in my youth; an easy pet; imagine having to walk five dogs! My hands are all over them, including the tails and I kiss one or two several times a day. Other than being in poor health, I do not get colds more than once every second or third year, no flu shot, no flu; I really believe they are the best things in my life for health.

I haven’t yet read it, but plan to read Beyond Words, a book about what animals think and feel. It is clear that we almost always underestimate them.

Love the thoughts. But my brother in law went away to hospital for months and came home and his dog feared him or something and would have nothing to do with him, for the rest of his life. Very tragic because it broke the man’s heart. Worse than having no dog..

Animals forget over time. This happened with our dachshunds when my wife was gone for months after a stroke. It did not take too long for them to warm back up to her but she was actively interacting with them. This may not have been possible with your brother. It’s like getting a shelter animal; most of them respond to love and affection.

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