Health & Wellness Relationships Spirituality

Animal Companions On the Path

Growing up in rural Connecticut with all kinds of animals, wild and domestic, I’d had plenty of experience to convince me how smart animals were, but I hadn’t seen anything quite like this. Read More

cat in the bathroom

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” (Anatole France, French novelist, 1844-1924)

The crows were mocking my dad.

Growing up in rural Connecticut with all kinds of animals, wild and domestic, I’d had plenty of experience to convince me how smart animals were, but I hadn’t seen anything quite like this. My father liked animals, especially dogs, but sometimes had a problem with wild ones if he thought they were dissing him or intruding on his turf. He fought a battle with barn swallows every summer, knocking down their beautiful, mud-daubed nests over the garage light because he was afraid their droppings would mess up the car. And he’d taken stronger measures against the red squirrels that invaded our cardboard box of a house, shooting at them with his .22 rifle after we discovered they’d been stealing dog food from the kitchen cupboard and storing it in one of my mother’s shoes.

I’m not sure what his beef with the crows was, really, except that they liked to hang out in the fields behind the house and squawk. Maybe he felt they were trespassing.

Crows are smart. Back then, we didn’t know how smart; now they’re regarded as one of the most intelligent creatures on Earth. But I got some idea that day, when my dad decided to break out the rifle with the crows, too. His problem was, as soon as he’d step out on the back porch with the gun in his hands, the crows would see it and take off. He never even got to take a shot at them.

Trying to salvage as much pride as possible, he settled for scaring them off for a bit. But then he had an idea: it was too much trouble to fetch the gun each time from the bedroom closet. So he’d save himself the effort and just grab the broom from the kitchen and wave that around. How would the dumb birds know the difference?

Only they did. If he turned up with the gun, they flew away. But if he had the broom, they sat on the lawn and laughed. Ever hear a crow laugh? They’re really good at it, with that raucous cawing. At least my dad was convinced they were laughing at him, and I suspect he was right.

old woman with catLiving with dogs, horses, birds, beavers, deer and reptiles, I learned that even birds and turtles had a desire for freedom and were capable of something like affection toward humans. It taught me to respect these remarkable creatures. Sometimes, as a child, I fell asleep on the floor, my head resting on our poodle’s warm belly, comforted by his steady heartbeat and breathing. Animals were constant companions on my path. I’ve hardly ever been without them.

And I’m hardly unique: at least sixty-five percent of households in America have a pet. Of those nearly 80 million households, sixty-three percent consider their pets part of the family.

Now, science is showing that what I knew instinctively from living with animals is true, including some things I never imagined. Animals are not only far smarter than we thought; they’re also good for our health. They may even have some things to teach us where spiritual matters are concerned.

The mutually beneficial connection between people and animals is usually called “the animal-human bond.” HABRI, the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute, defines it this way:

Pets change people. Every year, a growing body of research says having a pet could change your health. Studies show that pets can help lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, prevent allergies in children, reduce stress levels, decrease anxiety and depression, strengthen immune systems, increase social interaction, and more.

Consider the following information they provide:

  • If you’ve ever owned a cat, you’re relative risk of death by heart attack decreases 40%.
  • Having a cat or dog in the house can actually decrease childhood allergies.
  • 97% of people doctors believe that there are health benefits to owning a pet.
  • Pet ownership, perhaps by providing social support, lowers blood pressure response to mental stress.
  • Pet owners have higher one-year survival rates following heart attacks.
  • Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, may reduce cardiovascular disease risk.
  • Pet ownership was associated with a reduced risk for Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and diffuse large cell lymphoma.
  • Human health savings of $3.86 billion over 10 years have been linked to pet ownership as related to a decrease in doctor visits in studies in Austria and Germany.

kitten in hands

Having an animal companion can increase motivation to exercise by getting us out of the house to walk the dog, and provides a remedy for loneliness, depression, anxiety, and other conditions, without any of the long list of side effects you hear as they whizz through them on TV.

One of the clearest and most impressive forms of the bond is that of therapy animals. These animals, usually dogs or cats, are trained to support patients in a variety of ways. Studies have shown that therapy dogs help hospital patients reduce pain levels and increase satisfaction, including fibromyalgia patients, whose time spent with the animal beat the record of improvement in pain and mood, among other markers, over comparable time in an outpatient facility waiting area. Animals can also have a significant positive impact on children with autism, promoting social behaviors and the ability to focus. (Neither a stuffed animal nor other humans had the same benefit.)

And therapy animals in pediatric cancer studies showed they improved the children’s motivation to participate in their treatment, and to stay motivated and optimistic.

Obviously, the benefits we receive from animals go beyond the physical, and are deeply emotional, as well.

Dr. Froma Walsh has reviewed the research in these areas, and writes about the ways in which a bond with a pet can help us get through times of crisis, including having to move, losing a loved one, and adoption. She stresses the ways in which an animal in our lives helps provide important values such as affection, security, comfort, and love we can trust— animals don’t lie or play games. Once they bond with us, we can count on them.

I learned this lesson in a powerful way when I had a bad case of the flu. I’d had my cat Spots for several years, and we were close; she was very affectionate, and liked to stretch out on my legs when I read or watched TV in my favorite chair. She almost always slept on the foot of the bed, except when she decided my head would make a better pillow.

But this time she did something I never saw her do before or after. Seeing how sick I was, barely able to move, she came behind me where I was curled in a fetal position on top of the bed, and spooned me as best she could with her much smaller body. I’d slept in such a position on occasion, and she never did this. The unbelievable warmth of her was like a hot water bottle on my back, and I could feel her caring for me, doing for me what I’d done for her when she was sick and let her crawl under the covers and curl up against my stomach.

Perhaps it was experiences such as these that led French novelist Anatole France to say, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened,” a saying on the wall of my animal clinic. I couldn’t agree more.

Dr. Walsh says, “The powerful meaning and significance of companion animals is underestimated.” These bonds are seldom taken into consideration by mental health professionals when they assess their clients’ situations, but the evidence clearly suggests they should be. When I worked as a housing counselor for low-income seniors, several times I interviewed candidates for our housing that declined it, even though they were desperate to find a place. The reason? They would have had to give up their pet, who they considered a part of their family. In some cases, that dog or cat or bird was the only family they had. They knew how much value the animal brought them.


And while having an animal companion can benefit almost anyone, they can be particularly valuable for those on a journey to sobriety. As asks, “who says your support system has to be humans only?” It’s a great question, because the evidence is in: animals win in a landslide. As the site observes, “Companion animals are a wonderful option for addicts in recovery…Whether you choose a dog, cat, bird, lizard, rabbit, or any other creature, you’re sure to find a loyal best friend who can be everlasting support during this crucial time.”

They also point out one of the most valuable qualities a pet can have for someone in recovery: “they are completely non-judgmental. They know nothing about your past—your substance abuse, your mistakes, your fight for sobriety, nothing.”

The site lists some of the many benefits of having a companion animal for those in recovery, noting that a companion animal helps you:

  • Establish and maintain a daily routine
  • Have a sense of purpose
  • Stay active
  • Take responsibility
  • Find emotional support
  • Develop social bonds
  • Escape isolation
  • Find enjoyment
  • Get out of your own head
  • Be more present-centered

Writer Treacy Colbert for Morningside Recovery adds the important information that, “In an emerging trend, some substance abuse treatment centers allow inpatients to bring along household pets, incorporating furry friends into the care plan.” She cites still more advantages pets offer to people in recovery, including the reduction of negative emotions in the early stages of recovery, thanks to the soothing and dependable presence of an animal; and the natural stimulation of mood-elevating chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, linked to gazing into a dog’s eyes, with a corresponding increase in oxytocin, the hormone related to both lower blood pressure and the feeling of love. Colbert also presents data from a 2016 Washington State University study that showed “adolescent boys in a substance abuse treatment program who played with shelter dogs every week experienced less hostility and sadness,” and a 2009 one conducted by the University of Maryland in which holding and caressing a pet was seen to lower cortisol levels—a stress hormone associated with higher substance abuse treatment dropout rates.


catBut that’s not all. As much as personal experience and scientific research show the benefits of sharing our lives with animals, some people are claiming that animals not only improve our physical, mental and emotional health, but that of our souls, as well.

In a report published by Discovery News in 2013, a neurologist and other scientists make the case that animals are capable of having spiritual experiences—something usually considered unique to humans.

Their logic is that scientific evidence indicates that spiritual experiences originate within some of the oldest areas of the human brain. These brain structures are a part of our animal inheritance: animals had them before humans existed, and share them with us to this day. The reasoning is, ‘similar structures, similar experiences.’

Kevin Nelson, professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky and author of The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain, has analyzed the processes of spiritual sensation for more than thirty years. He writes that, “It is…reasonable to conclude that since the most primitive areas of our brain happen to be the spiritual…we can expect that animals are also capable of spiritual experiences.”

Professor Nelson’s findings are consistent with the scientific point of view that what we call “spiritual” is actually physical, neurological experience. One study, for example, determined that so-called “out-of-body” experiences in humans, in which the consciousness of the person seems to leave their body and travel elsewhere, are actually generated by the brain’s arousal system, which regulates a variety of states of consciousness. Given the similarity of their systems, Nelson says “There is absolutely no reason to believe it is any different for a dog, cat, or primate’s brain.”

And that experience of people near death in which they report moving down a tunnel of light, so familiar from television and films? Nelson links that to the eye’s vulnerability to low blood flow and the phenomenon of REM (rapid eye movement). On this basis, he concludes that other mammals, whose bodies are so similar to ours, may also have near-death experiences, including the light tunnel.

Mystical experiences, too—those powerful moments in which we are filled with a sense of awe, mystery and wonder—Nelson and others believe may be shared with other species, since they appear to arise within the brain’s limbic system.

Since other animals, especially other primates, genetically almost indistinguishable from us, but also other mammals such as cats, dogs, and horses, and sea creatures like whales, dolphins and porpoises, have brains similar to ours, it is possible that they too experience mystical sensation, including the sense of oneness with all things, according to Nelson.

Of course, a lot of this depends on how you define the word “spiritual.” And while many animal lovers would probably agree that animals are more like us than some believe, and that they may have experiences that do not fit into our neat, simple categories, I suspect many of those people would challenge the notion that human or animal spiritual experience are merely chemical transactions in the brain.

Whatever the truth about the soul or spirit may be, some people have found that their animal friends have an ability to help them with their spiritual practice.

Author Valerie Jocums had some of the same problems with meditation that I’ve talked about before. She says, “When I started my spiritual journey, my main practice for attempting to connect was through meditation. However, when I first started, I had difficulty calming my mind and just being present in the moment. When I did achieve calm during meditation, it did not last past the end of the meditation.”

But Jocums found a unique solution. She continues, “I made a breakthrough when my dog started meditating with me. I began meditating outside, to the sound of the running fountain, the thrum of hummingbirds visiting the feeder, and my dog snuggled warmly against my leg. This combination of nature and animals allowed me to easily slip into the peace of meditation and make that spiritual connection I was searching for.”

She raises an important point: it isn’t just domesticated animals that can support our journey, but wild ones as well, and the entire natural world. They can help us balance the effects of too much booming, banging, clanging civilization.

Jocums cites three basic animal traits that helped her find her spiritual connection:

1) Their ability to live in the now, in a natural mindfulness. She mentions workplaces where employers have allowed pets, finding that it improves employees’ mood, a sense of community, and the ability to stay present and focused on the task at hand.

2) Their capacity for unconditional love. Cats and dogs bond to us either as pack leaders or, if we really treat them right, as mother: as family, provider and nurturer. Once that happens, they remain fiercely loyal to us and forgive us when we’re less than perfect toward them.

And Jocums points out that “science has…discovered a region of the dog’s brain that allows them to recognize the emotions in our voice”—a region analogous to one in our brains. Other studies have shown that dogs can accurately match our facial expressions to our emotions. She concludes, “So, they do understand what we are feeling. It is not our imagination, and they still love us.”

3) Their talent for helping us find the wonder. By drawing us out of our preoccupations through their pure, present-centered pleasure in the simplest thing, whether a ball or piece of string, animals can awaken the sleeping sense of wonder in us.

They have certainly done so for Jane Goodall, the legendary primatologist whose decades-long studies of gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates in their natural habitats have enormously enhanced our knowledge and understanding of these close relatives of ours.

Goodall is fascinated by the fact that chimpanzees have been observed to engage in behavior that looks similar to human religious activity. These animals will sometimes approach a waterfall, where they seem to enter a trance-like state in which they sway rhythmically from foot to foot, stamp in the shallows and lift and hurl large rocks, until they calm down and sit quietly, gazing at the rushing water. Chimpanzees have also been known to dance at the onset of a storm.

Goodall’s question is, “Is it not possible that these performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe? If the chimpanzee could share his feelings and questions with others, might these wild elemental displays become ritualized into some form of animistic religion?”

Elephants, mountain lions, llamas and magpies, among other animals, have been known to grieve and to perform what amount to funeral rites, mourning for days or trying to revive their children or beloved members of their group. Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz writes of a greylag goose that lost its partner and showed the same symptoms of grief as human children, where “the eyes sink deep into their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang . . .”

Sea lion mothers wail with loss when their babies are eaten by killer whales; young elephants whose mothers were killed before their eyes often wake up screaming, suggesting the same post-traumatic nightmares people experience. Elephants and primates sometimes try desperately to bring their deceased back to life by offering them their favorite foods. Many species have been known to sing mournful-sounding funeral dirges at the passing of their loved ones, sometimes for hours or days at a time.

Not surprisingly, all of this is too much for some people.

Craig Stanford, a biological anthropologist and chimpanzee field researcher at the University of Southern California, for example, rejects the conclusions of Goodall and others about those chimpanzees at the waterfall. He said, “Ritualized behavior is common in the animal world, and chimpanzees throw stones in many contexts. The idea that this is proto- religious…is simply silly.”

Other experts aren’t so sure. In his book Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, Donovan Schaefer of Oxford University cautions against our “lingering sense that religion makes us human by severing our animality.” Donovan sees the origins of human religion and spirituality in deep feeling and bodily response to being alive, not in the much later development of beliefs and sacred texts.

Schaefer cites Frans de Waal’s book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? “The history of primate behavior as a discipline conveys a firm message: We must keep an open mind about what our closest living relatives can and cannot do, because often they will surprise us.”

One of the biggest surprises of my life with animals came early, when I was about 10 years old. One summer, our landlord’s son had a large wood turtle he kept in a doghouse in their kennel behind the house. The doghouse gave it shade, and he filled it with hay and dirt and gave it plenty of water and good, fresh food. As prisons go, it was pretty cushy.

Everything seemed fine for a while. I would see the turtle outside its house, scrabbling around on the cement floor of the kennel, exploring. It was healthy and lively. Then one morning, I came out of our house and walked up to the kennel to check on the turtle. I will never forget what I saw.

The turtle had climbed halfway up the four-foot high chain-link fence of the kennel, and was on its way to the top. I watched as it put one paw, slowly and laboriously, over the other, pulling itself up by sheer strength and determination. It was a hot day, and the turtle was right in the sun. It was a prison break in slow motion.

My friend came out of his house then and removed the turtle from the fence, putting it back in the deep, thick grass where he’d found it. He couldn’t keep it cooped up if it wanted to be free that badly. I remembered how the tiny department store turtle I had, Sid, used to climb out of his plastic tub with its plastic palm tree whenever my parents and I would leave for a while, and we’d come home to find him all the way at the far end of the house, hiding under the bed, covered in dust. I’d then treat him to a swim in the bathtub, where he would jet back and forth with amazing speed in what for all the world looked like sheer exhilaration.

Animals of every kind have been teaching me lessons like that my whole life. Some have been humbling. All have taught me not to underestimate them. To me, those are spiritual lessons. They remind me of what President Abraham Lincoln said in his usual simple and powerful way: “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”

Which leads me to leave you with a few questions:

If an animal like a dog or cat or gorilla or dolphin, with the ability to learn some human language, had the physical structures to form words, the way mynas and other birds can, what would they tell us? And how would that change how we view them and treat them?

How might it change our world, and how we treat each other?

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