It’s week #11 of Beckie’s mental health prompts’ series Working On Us at
Beckie’s Mental Mess
and I’m joining in. The topic for this week is pet therapy and emotional support animals.
Prompt #1 Questions:
- Do you own a pet for emotional support and/or service/therapy? – Yes, but it’s not strictly speaking an emotional support animal. I have a cat called Misha, he’s been with me since he was a few months old, and he is of tremendous support to me.
- Is your pet a certified therapy animal? – No. As much as Misha is helpful for me, he’s definitely not a fit whatsoever to be an emotional support animal formally. If you’d spend even just a day observing him closely you’d rather say it’s him who needs emotional support. Misha is an anxious loner who is scared of touch and closeness, and chronically stressed about everything, afraid of every noise and a more sudden movement. Strangers and travelling scare him as well, he doesn’t do changes and other cats. He is a well-bred aristocrat with loads of noble ancestors but looking solely at his behaviours and reactions one would think he must have spent years on the streets or in a shelter in the middle of a war zone. I really don’t know why he is like this, apart from that I’ve heard that just as much as parents can “infect” their children with anxiety if they are very anxious, same applies to pet owners. My Mum says he’s practically the worst fit for me, also because he only seems to tolerate eye contact fully well. Yet, despite our ups and downs, we get along really well. I have the added benefit that I know I am not alone with my anxieties and fears, weird reactions to stuff and avoidance. I know he understands me, although at the same time he is the only being in the world in whose company I would be happy to be ALL the time, but he so often prefers to be alone, and sometimes it’s hard to not take it personally. I have to often prioritise his needs when he needs his solitude or has a bad anxiety day and is all jittery and jumpy, but I know he understands how important he and his support is to me and that when he recuperates he’ll give me his attention and support and I’ll be happy to give him the same in return if he wants. I’ve heard so many people saying he is selfish, but in fact, taking everything into consideration, I think he is of an extremely noble and generous nature, but also a very difficult and complex character. I guess it’s good he’s not a human, he’s already enough of a complexity.
- What kind of pet do you own? – Misha is a Russian blue tsar, he’s over 3 and a half years old. We also have a mixed-breed dog called Jocky, who sometimes works therapeutically for me as well, even though I don’t have usually as much of a connection with dogs as I do with felines. Jocky is the lively, happy type, he’s mostly Zofijka’s, her cure for loneliness and lack of friendships, but my family says he must like me in some special way because he’s always very engaging with me. I mean, in a bit of a different way than with the rest of us. Especially when I feel low, I have a suspicion he really is able to feel when I’m depressed. And then he is so very funny and jumps at me and all and wants to play with me, and he always wins in the end because I can’t not laugh. We also have aquarium fish. I’ve heard people saying having aquarium fish is very calming and therapeutic because it calms them down to be able to look at them swimming, but since I can’t see them, they might as well not exist to me.
- Do you believe that support animals truly assist those in need? – Sure they do! I am not sure what to think about that animals can respond to our emotions, I think it depends in a way on an individual animal, but in any case, just having a pet that you love, whatever that animal does to make you feel better, can sometimes truly help. And there are trained service animals who help and assist people and I think that is unquestionable that they do and to a huge degree.
- Do you believe that any animal can be a therapy/support pet? – I think it really depends. On a specific animal, how engaging and interactive it is, but also on the human who is on the receiving end and is supposed to get some help from that animal. If you are sceptical, I don’t think it will help, and if you are scared of horses for example, it’s doubtful you’ll benefit from hipotherapy, unless you want to overcome your fear. It’s slightly hard for me to imagine how those less interactive animals (like the fish I mentioned for example) can support people, but I guess if you really like fish and are attached to your fish, it’s possible. I think it’s primarily the connection and love between you and your pet that is healing and therapeutic, not some unusual properties of the animal itself.
Prompt #2 Narrative:
Describe how your pet is of support to you? EXAMPLE: Helps with anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc… (And, please… Share their name and a photo) if you desire.
Misha – despite being a bundle of nerves himself most of the time – has a very calming effect on me. He is my best friend. I spend a lot of my time alone, which I am most of the time happy about but having Misha gives me some company and on those days when I do feel lonely, I feel less lonely because I have him. He helps me with anxiety. Like I said, I know he is anxious himself and that sort of adds to the connection between us. We understand each other on this front, I know I am not alone with what I feel, because a lot of the time, when I have a bad anxiety day, he does too. I call him my charger because he always helps me to recharge after a lot of socialising. Misha is very quiet like most of cats, not even particularly vocal, but he helps me with what I call silence anxiety (basically when there’s complete silence and my brain doesn’t get enough sensory stimuli, it’s really hard to explain and understand), even if Misha doesn’t make the slightest sound his presence can sometimes make it go away completely. When I feel depressed, he keeps me company and gives some purpose to my existence. He makes me feel useful because he needs support too. There are days when he does want a proper, long, relaxing cuddle, and he always comes for it to me, and he comes to me in search of refuge when suddenly there are lots of shouty strangers downstairs, smoking and listening to loud music, or stranger kids running around the house and wanting to hold him and calling him a she. It’s funny by the way how he’s always able to understand that an invasion of human beings is about to happen and run away to my room just in time, and it’s interesting how he doesn’t mind some people coming over to us and is happy to stay downstairs with them. He is my sleeping pill. We’ve established a routine on most of the nights (and Misha loves his rituals and routines) that he sleeps in my room at night, in his bed, and it really helps me to fall asleep when I have him close. Or if I can’t sleep, it’s even better, because I can pet Misha. My Swedish teacher encouraged me once that I should talk to Misha in other languages, because that’s what he did with his cats and they understand. And that’s what I do now. It’s cool because he seems to understand me no less than in Polish, while the humans don’t get a word. So I can talk to him about things that I wouldn’t talk about to people, that I don’t feel like talking with people, or that I don’t have anyone to talk to about. Misha doesn’t purr very loudly, I’ve read somewhere that purring isn’t only a signal of pleasure for a cat, but a self-soothing mechanism first and foremost. And when he does purr, it sounds more like he’s purring to himself. I’ve also learnt that a cat can purr when anxious or in pain and that would be true for Misha I think. But when he purrs for himself, I love to eavesdrop and get some of it for myself. I like to lie near him and listen to all his inner sounds – his purrs, his breath, his tummy gurgling, his heartbeat, every Mish sound is like a music for me and it is very soothing. – Playing with him always makes me happy. And just his presence changes the atmosphere in the room where he is. Basically, after those 3 years with Misha, I can’t imagine my life without him anymore. I guess Misha is like a drug for me. When I’m away for a few days, like on holidays or something, by the time I come back home to Misha I have full-blown withdrawal syndrome.
Here’s a pic of Misha, I don’t even know how presentable Misha is on it and don’t remember what he looks like here, but this photo’s been lying in my Dropbox so I believe I must have used it somewhere earlier, and I don’t think we’ve made many new photos lately, so I hope this one is good.
Other than Misha, I’ve also had some experience with hipotherapy. I’m currently having a hiatus (which will likely be over in September), but I used to horse ride regularly. I’ve written a fair few posts on my complicated relationship with riding and how it all started but to give you an idea, the very first time I started riding was at the boarding school for the blind when I was 5 and in the nursery. I didn’t like it, I was scared of it, probably because of my issues with balance, and any time I was supposed to ride I was sick. That stopped when I went to primary, because since then only those with multiple disabilities could do hipotherapy and it turned out I had allergy to horses, so I was happy with it. The when I was in what we call integration school at the age of 10 my Mum read an article on the benefits of hipotherapy and she felt like I could benefit a lot from it, especially emotionaly, and she found a stud and signed me up for hipotherapy there. All without my knowledge. I guess she didn’t even know how scared I was. But after the first time I rode there I suddenly discovered that I love horses and I love riding and it is amazing! I’ve been riding there until now with some longer breaks in between, still with the same instructor, and, until last year, always on the same horse. Sadly, last year, my faithful horse – Czardasz aka Łoś – died of old age.
At some point my instructor suggested to me that we could do more actual riding and less hipotherapy. That is, the stud where I am riding is exclusively for the disabled, and most of the people riding there have severe cerebral palsy or similar things, and they can’t really ride. I have some additional stuff apart from my blindness, like my shitty balance but it’s definitely not quite as severe a thing so overall I was able to ride and do much more on horseback. So I agreed and since then we’re doing what’s apparently called horse riding with elements of hipotherapy. 😀 My instructor is both a hipotherapist and a riding instructor, and a keen rider herself, but she is also a doctor – a neurologist. – So, apart from having fun riding, I have conversations about the brain with her and it’s thanks to her that I realised that had I been sighted I’d like to be a neurosurgeon.
I find horse riding very therapeutic. Very helpful with releasing the stress, tensions, all that stuff. Makes you feel free. You can’t ride while you’re tense so you naturally have to relax. Which can take for me just about the whole 45 minutes to fully relax my muscles at times, but oh well, it’s worth trying, isn’t it? It’s incredible how you bond with a horse while riding, especially if, like me, you don’t really change horses a lot, so you can get to know 1-2 horses really well, get to know your horse’s personality, the way of walking, what they react to and so on. My horse – my first one, the one who died last year – was really good and patient with me. He always felt when I was anxious, he seemed to understand me and I usually understood him too. He was very, very big and very, very phlegmatic. He once fell asleep while walking and tripped and I fell off of him, that’s how phlegmatic he was. 😀 We got along really well, although sometimes his size scared me and he wasn’t easy to ride because he was very demanding and I needed to work real hard to make him feel anything from my movements, since he was so much bigger than me. 😀
My current horse is a bit of a nervous type, and very receptive. I am not quite as bonded with him primarily because I haven’t ridden much on him, but I like him a lot.
I usually feel really euphoric for a while after hipotherapy, you know, endorphines kicking in and all that. But also, I said I have a complicated relationship with riding, because I do. While I love it so much, at the same time it’s still scary for me. Not that type of scary as when I was a kid, but it is scary. I can’t even exactly tell you why. I am scared that something awful will happen when I’ll be riding, I once had a panic attack while riding, and that I have poor balance doesn’t help and doesn’t make me feel safer on horseback. I know I go through the same fear every time I am about to ride, and I know that 9 times out of 10 everything will be fine, and I am willing to take the challenge, and my willingness to ride is (usually) stronger than the fear, but the fear is just there no matter what. Sometimes it still makes me feel sick and like I won’t do it this time. Things would be much easier if I didn’t have that fear, and I think I’d be able to do more and in less time.
Just like with Misha who makes an impression of not fitting for an emotional support animal, same applies to my horse riding, it’s a bit paradoxical that I ride, because technically I don’t have in abundance all that stuff that you need to be a good rider. My balance is screwed up, my sensory integration is screwed up and my coordination is screwed up. It makes things tricky. But at least thanks to riding I can improve them as much as it’s possible. But I think overall, taking everything into account, I am a pretty decent rider anyway, and I used to take part in local, small competitions and scored high which I am proud of.