Animal Mentors

Pets Help People Heal Mentally

Pets. Aren't they wonderful? (Understatement of the century if you are a fellow animal lover, I know).

But as it turns out, not everyone is an animal lover. Some people need to be convinced. For the record, I understand this and here is why.

When I was very little, my mom and I went out walking in the neighborhood. All I remember is that Mom was delivering something to a neighbor. When we knocked, the neighbor's tiny fluffy white dog came out before she did. I promptly did what (I think) all delighted kids do when they see a small fluffy white animal moving around by their feet - I reached down to pet the dog.

I didn't make it. That tiny dog clamped her tiny jaws around my tiny wrist and that was that for me and dogs....for at least the next three decades.

It took several years of determined effort, including reading every book about dogs I could find and petting as many dogs as would let me, before I became a dog lover.

I am still working on cats, and to tell you the truth I am not making much progress. But that is a topic for a different blog post (and likely a different writer).

So not everyone loves animals and in many cases there are probably some very good reasons for this.

Interestingly, I have always loved birds and turtles and tortoises and frogs and toads and have never had a moment of fear or hesitation come up about this affinity even though I have been nipped and outright bitten and scratched and peed on and pooped on repeatedly by all of the above. So it seems there are some animals I just naturally gravitate to more than others.

Of course, I could say the same about some people. Some I love on sight. Some....not so much. And some, not at all.

Luckily, just as there are lots of different people in this world, there are lots of different animals. So the way I see it, there is probably an animal for each person.

Case in point: I once read a story in a nature book about a man who kept...wait for it....cockroaches.

Animal Mentors

Pets Help People Heal Emotionally

I am happy to report that two of my three nonhuman life companions are documented Emotional Support Animals, more commonly known as ESAs.

And here, when I say they are "documented," I don't mean I just went online and ordered a certificate and a badge from one of the myriad websites eager to sell me one. (I mean, I did do that part as well, because on average people respond better to badges versus just taking my word for it and my doctor's office doesn't make ESA badges.)

But I also consulted with my longtime personal physician of more than a decade and she agreed to personally write a letter attesting to the significant emotional support both Pearl, my cockatiel, and Malti, my redfooted tortoise, provide to me on a daily basis.

In other words, Pearl's and Malti's ESAs are totally legit.

This is becoming a more important distinction today than it was when I first learned there was such an (um) animal as an ESA.

After all....emotional support. What does that even mean?

The dictionary tells me emotion is a state of mind. Not surprisingly, upon reading this I am instantly confused. The word "mind" conjures up associations with mental support, not emotional support. What is the difference? Is there a difference?

Wikipedia further informs me that emotion is a mental state associated with chemical changes taking place in my central nervous system. Upon reading this, I feel like I am playing a mental game of "warmer or colder" and things just got a lot colder inside my head.

I decide to switch gears and research the meaning of emotional support directly. This is slightly more helpful. I learn that giving compassion, empathy, concern, kindness - these are hallmarks of offering emotional support to another being. Better.

So then what does all this imply about an animal's ability to be a source of emotional support to people? So interesting!

For starters, to me at least it implies that animals are capable of showing empathy, concern, kindness, compassion - a topic clearly not all researchers or homo sapiens can agree on. Most people agree that the domestic dog and miniature horse can give all of these types of support and more, because currently these are the only two non-human species permitted to be certified as official Service Animals.

In case you didn't already know this (I didn't until only recently) a service animal, or SA, is NOT the same thing as an ESA. Also, just so you know, you really don't want to mix the two up...especially when posting about it publicly on social media.

Okay, back to the topic at hand. How exactly do animals help people heal emotionally, especially if no one, even the folks paid to look into these matters, is completely clear on just what "emotion" or "emotional support" even is?

My completely unofficial answer is: they just do.

Animal Mentors

Pets Help People Heal Physically

If you are a "pet person" like I am, reading a statement like "pets help people heal" is probably pretty much a no-brainer for you.

Of course they do. Yup. Duh. Next.

Right now, as I type these words, my almost 21-year-old cockatiel, Pearl, is occupying the other half (more commonly referred to as "his half") of our writing table. While I work to earn rent money to keep a roof over his feathery head, he is happily chewing through a fresh bag of organic granola, foraging out bits and pieces he likes and flinging what he doesn't eat all over the table...and chairs....and rugs...and floor. (Want to see him in action? Now you can!)

I find this incredibly healing on all levels, but today it is on a physical level where I notice the benefits the most.

As my ears catch the telltale sounds of "crinkle, crackle, crunch" from the nearby granola bag, my eyes instinctively look up from the laptop and over at his adorable small feathered body. I gaze at his cute curved beak as it nips out individual bits of granola. His round black eyes are so happy and bright and this makes my eyes happy and bright. I smile.

This sends the signal to my shoulders to begin their slow retreat down and away from their customary position lodged right up underneath my ears. Down, down, down, they descend until at last they are back where they belong once more. The shooting, throbbing joint pain in my wrists, hands and fingers, a lovely calling card from my thyroid who is clearly feeling under-appreciated yet again, begins to recede as well. I return to my work - this blog post - feeling re-energized and inspired anew about my topic.

Pets help people heal physically.

Here is another great example.

Animal Mentors

Pets Are Just Little People With Feathers, Shells or Fur

How many times have you looked at your own pet and known exactly what s/he was thinking?

Have you ever had an experience where you felt like you and your animal were communicating perfectly even though you speak totally different languages?

Do you have some kind of super-secret "spidey sense" that alerts you when your pet is ill, upset or simply not themselves?

If you answered "yes" to all three questions (like I just did), you may find yourself wondering why everyone doesn't see animals the way you do.

And yet I have literally lost count of the times people have said to me, or I have said to others, "pets are just little people with feathers, shells or fur."

My pets certainly are, which will make more sense once I clarify what I mean by "little people."

Thanks in large part to the pioneering work of avian researcher Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her most famous research partner, the late African Grey parrot Alex, we now have solid factual evidence that many parrots are as cognitively smart and emotionally sensitive as a typical two to five-year-old human child.

But that isn't all. More recently, Dr. Pepperberg's new research partner, the African Grey parrot Griffin, outperformed young apes on a sophisticated intelligence test.

Wow. And yet not wow.

Honestly, after nearly 21 years together, I feel I have gathered sufficient qualitative evidence (this is evidence gained from focused observation of a research subject rather than number crunching, which I suck at) to unofficially prove my cockatiel, Pearl, is as smart as the average two-year-old.

On any given day, if I simply forget he is a parrot and instead imagine him to be one of my nephews at age two, I realize there is approximately zero difference in their behavior.

For example, Pearl wants what he wants when he wants it and he has absolutely zero patience with that thing called "waiting." If it isn't fun, he refuses to do it. What's his is his and what's mine is matter what it is. He gets really cranky if he stays up too late but doesn't want to go to bed and miss out on any fun. his energy level could run a marathon around mine any day of the week and twice on Sundays. The word "no" is just a shorter version of the word "yes."

Need I go on....?

However, I suspect more readers will be interested in hearing about canine smarts than avian smarts. So what about the family pup? Just how smart is your furry family member?

Very, very smart, at least according to one company that is spending zillions to create technology to bust through the interspecies language barrier once and for all. The product is a talking service dog vest. If the dog's owner goes into medical crisis, the dog can run up to any stranger and the vest will instruct that person to go help the dog's owner.

So brilliant. And yet not brilliant.

After all, if you have a dog you likely already know your dog knows before you do if you have cancer, a rash or even just a very bad day going on.

Sure, dogs don't have opposable digits like apes (or birds for that matter). But who really cares about thumbs when today's domestic dogs have vocabularies that easily surpass 165 words. In comparison, the average two-year-old child knows anywhere from 50 to 200 words. The dog can't say the words.

Now, it is true dogs can't say those words using human language. But yet again, does that really matter when dogs are so creative they have figured out over the millennia how to mirror our facial expressions to communicate with us? Canine paleontologists have proved how dogs' facial structure has quite literally evolved to take the place of spoken language as a communication tool to "talk" with their people.

Incredible. And not incredible.

On that topic, I want to share with you a jaw-dropping story of canine smarts that is very dear and personal to me.

Animal Mentors

Animal Instincts Are Human Instincts

Now just imagine, instead of two male tigers and one lady tiger, the scenario includes two male humans and one lady human (or two lady humans and one male human, or three lady humans, or three male humans, or whatever scenario makes the most sense for you in your life at the moment).

Point being, imagine this scene playing out between three homo sapiens instead of three tigers. In public. With witnesses. Who have webcams. And handcuffs. And handguns. And access to YouTube and CNN and lawyers.

You could also theoretically swap out the love interest for anything else two tigers (or two homo sapiens) might both want, such as prey or territory, and the scenario still works pretty much the least until you introduce a certain pesky prefrontal cortex into the picture.

In my humble opinion, it is actually quite difficult being an animal who is a homo sapiens today.

Animal Mentors

Embrace Your Inner Tortoise (and Maybe Save the Planet)

A fellow tortoise-loving friend sent me an article with the most fantastic title: "We are all tortoises."

YES, I thought. Finally someone who truly understands me.

But as I started reading, I got very sad.

Our planet is dying. So are the tortoises who live here. So are we.

Here, I don't mean eventually or inevitably. I mean consciously and continuously.

For instance, did you know that as our ecosystem gets increasingly warmer, this affects whether newborn turtles are born male or female? Without going into too many specifics, too warm and you get a clutch full of girls. Too cool, and every egg hatches out a boy.

This isn't just true of turtles, either. All cold-blooded species (fish, lizards, et al) are temperature and environment-sensitive genetically.

Unlike my redfoot tortoise, Malti, and my 3-toed box turtle, Bruce, I have warm blood. So does my soul bird, my 20-year-old cockatiel, Pearl.

But the fate of the cold-blooded amongst us deeply affects us all, whether it is within the confines of our little flock or out in this greater round blue world we share together.

Here is something else I find interesting that you might find interesting as well.

I realize that my kind is doing some very bad things to warm up the planet rather too quickly. I also believe the planet is warming up on its own and likely would be anyway even if we weren't here.

As proof, I submit the following: Climatologists tell us there are times in our distant past that were much hotter than what it is right now. We also have proof (sorry, dinosaurs) that our planet has previously been much colder.

So yes, this whole global warming thing is our fault. And no, it isn't our fault.

Either way, we can still do something - lots of things - to help.

I would like to propose we start by each embracing our inner tortoise, just like the article encourages us to do.

We all have one (you know you do).

Animal Mentors

Who Needs Who? How Pets Became Pets

Of course, this didn't stop me from adding not one but two additional pets to round out Pearl's and my little family during the years he and I were together.

The first addition was Malti, a hatchling redfoot tortoise. Next came Bruce, a rescued 3-toed box turtle. And then right after Bruce came along, my parents brought home Flash Gordon, a standard wire-haired dachshund puppy I adored from day one.

So clearly I am a "pet person," which I take to mean someone who just craves animal companionship for whatever reason. My former partner didn't have any desire for interspecies company. I do and always have had. It was actually one of the biggest sticking points that finally resulted in our painful demise much earlier this year.

My partner is obviously no longer in my life but all three of my animals still are. And oh how heavily I have leaned on their love and support (as well as my commitment to care for each one of them with diligence and excellence no matter what) as I have learned how to be single once again.

Yet still, underneath it all, I dream of a world where homo sapiens and all the other species can live - coexist - without one species feeling the entitlement it absolutely takes to make a pet of another.

One history of pets I read online suggested that the first pets likely arose when early iterations of modern us took in abandoned baby animals, cared for them, raised them, bonded with them.

Animal Mentors

Yoga with Pearl: A Parrot’s Perspective on Downward Dog

I have to say - aside from Benji, I have yet to see another yogi so accomplished as Pearl.

Even as I tumble out of yet another attempt at Tree pose, I look up to see my avian effortlessly balanced on one tiny pink foot, while the other foot delicately soothes an itch right beneath his left eye.

And here is where practicing yoga with my cockatiel really gets interesting.

Pearl and I have been doing yoga together for a good, solid year and a half now - almost since I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in late 2017.

Every single day since we first began our daily at-home yoga practice together, Pearl has gotten visibly (and audibly) excited every time I raise my arms.

Animal Mentors

The Cockatiel Who Healed a Family

There once was a time when home was the last place I wanted to be.

To hear my mom tell it, I divided my early childhood years fairly evenly between asking her repeatedly if I was adopted and voluntarily standing in the corner of our kitchen while placidly pulling on the extra-long spiraled telephone cord.

I was an odd child.

Things didn't precisely improve as I aged. I was not even yet eleven when my body burst into bloom, so to speak, and I began to develop. First I grew out....waaaay out. Everyone noticed. My folks noticed. My teachers noticed. The bullies at school noticed out loud and on a daily basis.

Then, not at all surprisingly, I went on a diet. About the same time, I finally grew up....waaaay up. I went from "beach ball" to "flag pole" in short order - so much so that peers I'd spent every year since kindergarten with didn't recognize me when I returned to school that fall.

My seventh grade year was the start of fleeting peer popularity and the end of family harmony. Suddenly all the kids who hadn't wanted to be seen with me now wanted to be seen with me. I didn't want to be seen with anyone, on account of how my new friend the eating disorder was the jealous type. Most especially, I didn't want to be seen eating anything, anywhere, with anyone, ever.

Unfortunately, my mom's passions revolved around the kitchen, where she labored for hours daily to deliver home-cooked delicacies. We ate around the family table in old school fashion - all together, right as Dad came home from work and us kids returned from school - no television, no phone calls, no distractions. Only, suddenly, I opted out, with absolutely all of the chaos and drama you might expect from such a secession.

Things only got worse from there as I got older and skinnier and became (frankly) probably more trouble than I was worth. After a series of mis-fires that lasted several uncomfortable years, I finally launched myself all the way from Texas to California, and then on to New York and finally India and Israel, where I made the life-altering choice to kick the eating disorder to the curb once and for all.

Then I moved back to Texas and did whatever it is a person does when they have just pushed the "reset" button on their whole life and have no idea what to do next.

The eating disorder's exit improved my overall health, as you might imagine. My social life outside the family also began to improve. Unfortunately, it didn't do much for my finances, and my family life actually got worse.

Animal Mentors

Animals Are Just Like Us! They Seek Pleasure & Avoid Pain

Since I was little, I have often felt closer to animals than to others of my own species. This month, in honor of the ninth anniversary of my blog here on Psych Central, I have decided to spend the month featuring some of my first-ever mentors and teachers with a mini-series called "Animals Are Just Like Us! I hope you enjoy it. :-) If you have ever witnessed a group of turtles, or sea lions, or people, lying perfectly still in a beam of sunshine, you already know we share pleasure-seeking in common.

Feeling good feels good. We like it. We love it. We want more of it.

My former partner used to like to turn on nature shows in the afternoon. He would often fall asleep (I have no idea how) while watching what I quickly dubbed "The Cougar Channel." This is because, no matter what day or what time of day he switched it on, it seemed the footage always featured some poor gazelle running for his life, a hungry cougar in quick pursuit.

There is an old joke about how to outrun a bear in the woods. There are two hikers. A bear appears. They both freak. One asks the other, "How are we going to outrun this bear?" The other answers, "I don't have to outrun that bear. I just have to outrun you."

Awesome. So we all want to avoid being eaten. When pursued by a voracious slavering predator, whether it is a fictitious monster insect alien in some sci-fi film or a real-life tiger in the jungle, we don't stop to reason with ourselves about the relative odds of capture versus escape.

We just RUN.

In the same way, we have copious evidence that non-human beings will do all kinds of things people also do for - we can assume - the same exact reasons: these activities produce pleasure.

Let's take, well, mating. I grew up in an era where the reigning school of thought was that only homo sapiens derived any pleasure from the act. To make a long boring story short....we were wrong.

But I didn't really need research to tell me this. Starting at the tender age of eight, I have kept near-constant company with male parrots, first parakeets and then cockatiels. When spring arrives, they know it. If there isn't a lady bird around, a perch, a basket, even a male bird will do. Apparently they need all the practice they can get, and boy do they get it! (I'll spare you the details, but the one time I kept a pair of male finches was the worst.)

To this day, I enjoy watching animal behavior shows, like those shows that feature veterinarians who tackle "lost cause" pets or wild animals with unusual disorders.