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Comfort Always: The Animal Factor

Comfort-AlwaysMany of my clients work in high-pressure jobs full of relentless multi-tasking and never ending deadlines. Others are chronically ill and struggle to navigate their “new normal” or a worsening prognosis. In both instances, stress undermines their quality of life. This is why I frequently do stress inventories with clients to identify their current top stressors to determine which ones can be modified and a plan to do that. What I have found time and again is that some of the most powerful and sustainable de-stressing occurs with clients who are connected to animals.

Simply put, animals have a powerful healing effect for those awash in physical or emotional stress. A good example is a friend of mine whose father had passed away after a short and devastating battle with cancer. She had been very close to her father and the loss was overwhelming. Soon after his death, she adopted a puppy and that made all the difference. A deep connection to an animal gave her unconditional love that was transformative both physically and emotionally.

I have another client who has metastatic cancer. She will be on some form of chemotherapy the rest of her life. When asked what helps her cope with the stress of her illness, she points to her cat Max. In her battle to keep cancer at bay, she has to endure the side effects of chemotherapy that include joint pain, gastrointestinal upset and fatigue. Through all of it, Max is there. When she comes home, he is first to greet her with a straight up tail. He seems to know when she is having a bad day and will lie next to her when she rests, reads or watches television. Clearly, Max makes all the difference in her quality of life.

Horses too can offer healing powers. A few years back, I had just undergone multiple surgeries and a course of radiation therapy. I was feeling weak, depleted and stressed as a result of the unexpected changes in my health. I headed to our place in the Colorado mountains with the goal of recovery. It was there I met a gray mare named Lady. She was calm, and brave around sightings of wildlife unlike the other horses in my group. She showed me how to be calm in the presence of potential danger. Whether I was riding on the trail or on the ground with her, her quiet attention was always on me. Later I learned she was a powerful, bossy mare when in the big horse herd and had a dedicated posse of geldings that followed her everywhere. She moved easily between the herd and the human world. Her horse sense and mindfulness were transformational. I found my stress levels diminished and my healing accelerated as I rode her that summer.

For those who are undergoing chronic physical or emotional stress a connection to an animal might offer some comfort and de- stressing. As I work with stress in my clients, I sometimes recall a basic tenet in medicine that we learned early on in our training: “Cure when possible, comfort always.” For many, this is what the animals in their life do, comfort always.


  1. Janet,

    What an important, thoughtful blog entry, and as you know, I couldn’t agree more. I have had dogs all of my life, and as a child enjoyed many trips to my grandparents dairy farm in Missouri. There were always cows, of course, dogs, chickens, and horses, too. Being with animals feeds my soul. During some of the health challenges in my life, I always felt calm and safe next to my beloved dogs. I didn’t realize that you only met Lady a few years ago at C Lazy U — I thought you had been with her much longer. What a wonderful story. I hope you are well — happy, healthy 2014! Jo

  2. My sister-in-law was diagnosed with stage IV cancer in her breast and at the base of her neck in 2006. It was treated with several rounds of chemo followed by radiation. Her husband bought her a westie puppy he referred to as her “cancer buddy”. She named him Doogy (as in Doogy Houser). Doogie was her constant companion and miraculously, her condition improved and Deb went into remission. I say miraculous because her doctor could give no scientific reason for her recovery. At the age of five, Doogie developed an inoperable tumor in his neck and died. Of course, Debbie was heart broken, but she was also very greatful as she believed that some how Doogie took her cancer away. Debbie is still in remission and has two new cancer buddies; Casey & Brady, a pair of 3 year old shitzu’s given to her by her cousin.

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