Feeling Depressed? Animal-Assisted Therapy Could Help

Dec. 28, 2014 / By

Bercham Elementary fifth grader Aubrie Beebe has gone through more during her first 10 years on Earth than most people experience in their lifetime.

Just two years ago at the age of eight, Aubrie’s mother Monica noticed that her daughter was not looking herself.

“She was not acting herself, and she had lost a lot of weight,” said Monica. “We went to the hospital and they realized there was something not right.”

Aubrie was diagnosed with a very rare medical condition called Rasmussen Encephalitis, which caused her to have seizures. At UCLA she underwent surgery where they removed part of her brain, but afterwards she was required to have a riskier surgery that resulted in half of her brain being removed.

“To lose half your brain, there’s a lot of deficits,” said Monica. “She has vision impairment and auditory stimulation, her walk is slower, and she has no use of her left hand. She had a long period of time in the hospital just learning how to get dressed again, sit up again, and swallow again.”

For about two months Aubrie was stuck in a hospital room with an EEG, a brain monitoring device, connected to her head while her diagnosis was being done.

“She couldn’t go to the playroom, she couldn’t leave the hospital room,” said Monica. “Basically she was trapped for a long time with not much else to do. It was hard to be there.”

Monica said that her daughter felt depressed after the surgery, when reality hit and she could no longer move her left hand or left leg.

“I saw tears often after surgery,” said Monica.

But something that made Aubrie feel better — besides the presents and visits from friends — were the therapy dogs that came to visit her.

“I really liked the visits from the dogs, especially because they cheered me up,” said Aubrie, who cites a “big, fluffy dog” named Bonner as her favorite.

The dogs that visited Aubrie were part of the UCLA People-Animal Connection Program, a health organization that provides animal therapy to kids and adults who have a critical illness.

The National Institute of Mental Health recognizes animal-assisted therapy as a way to combat depression and other types of mental disorders. According to the National Center for Health Research, 71 million U.S. households have a pet, and studies have shown that people that have a pet are less likely to be depressed than people who don’t. A German study conducted between 1996 and 2001 even found that pet owners are likely to have fewer doctor visits than non-pet owners.

“The hospital stay would not have been the same without the animals,” said Monica. “For the majority of the time (she was in the hospital) she was trapped with nothing to do and nowhere to go, but these dogs would come down the hallway and Aubrie’s face would just light up like a Christmas tree. It was a reason to get up, it was something to look forward to.”

After being released from the hospital, Aubrie received additional interaction with therapy dogs as part of her physical therapy from California Children’s Services.

“At therapy, in order to help her utilize her left hand they would get her a wide-handled brush, in order to get her to pet the dog and get her left hand to move,” said Monica. “Even at home we use that (with their dog Roxie) just to get her to move the hand.”

Rachel Mahgerefteh, an Assistant Coordinator at Disabled Student Services at California State University, Long Beach, says that being around a dog helps your mood to change because you have something else to focus on.

“You feel safe, comfort, and it’s like something changes inside of your brain when you’re around animals,” said Mahgerefteh.

According to Therapy Dogs International, over 24,000 therapy dogs were registered in 2012 alone. These dogs not only visit hospitals but also nursing homes or anywhere else where they can be helpful.

However, therapy dogs, or emotional support dogs, are not the same as service dogs. While service dogs are trained to do a specific function, like detecting to see if there is anything wrong with their owner, therapy dogs are tested to see if they’re well mannered, then tasked with providing emotional support and even motivation to a person during therapy.

Dr. Ferdinand Arcinue, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and Clinical Services Coordinator at California State University, Long Beach, says that taking care of a pet is a good way to fight depression.

“The act of taking responsibility and taking care of something else can help with depression, because depression can get people to be stuck in their own thoughts,” Arcinue said. “Taking your pet for a walk, or even just taking care of your pet, will help people to get away from those negative thoughts and keep them active.”

Mollie Samocha, a masters student at University of California, Davis, is thankful for her dog Chevy because she gets her out of bed and out of the house to go for walks.

“Chevy provides an obvious and immediately relevant ‘someone’ who needs me,” said Samocha. “Because of her, I am never alone. There is so much comfort in that.”

This reporter knows from personal experience about how taking care of an animal can help with depression. Just recently I adopted a cat named Lula, and although she isn’t a certified therapy animal, she has helped me with my own depression in the wake of my grandmother’s death.

Torrance-based psychologist Dr. Bobbi K. O’Brien, Ph.D., says that even the act of petting an animal can decrease blood pressure, which in turn can decrease anxiety.

“Many individuals have difficulty with self-soothing, so having an animal to take care of and hold and pet can help the individual soothe themselves,” said O’Brien. “Taking care of a pet can help a person feel less lonely and more positive about themselves.”

A 2002 study found that individuals who had a pet had lower blood pressure and heart rates while undergoing stressful situations than non-pet owners who were also going through stress.

Long Beach resident Michelle Wolf knows from her own experience how having a pet can help someone feel calmer. Just after having spinal surgery, Wolf got an emotional support dog named Buster that helps her with her anxiety.

“When I start stressing out I grab him and hold him and he calms me down,” said Wolf. “I don’t know what it is, but it works.”

Arcinue says it is very important for people to realize that it’s not really the animal that’s helping them to feel calmer, but what they’re doing with the animal that’s helping them.

“With anxiety and depression, part of it is the importance of the sense of control,” said Arcinue. “It’s not like the animals are calming you down, it’s more that you’re using the animal to help yourself calm down, so you’re actually doing it yourself.”

Despite the fact that Aubrie has more to deal with than her peers, she talks with a sense of happiness and optimism. Most of that is attributed to her family who has helped her during her darkest moments, but it can also be partly attributed to her dog Roxie, who she says automatically slowed down for her when she came home from the hospital.

“She just knew something was wrong,” said Aubrie.

For more information, visit Therapy Dogs International at www.tdi-dog.org.

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Ben Novotny

Ben Novotny is an alumnus of California State University, Long Beach where he majored in Journalism and minored in American Studies. At CSULB Ben was a staff writer for The Union Weekly, the student-run campus newspaper and was actively involved with the school's TV production studio. Ben was a Contributing Writer for The Long Beach Post and the Long Beach Business Journal and has been a Youth Reporter at VoiceWaves for four years.