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Soothe the Soul: How Therapy Animals Are Helping Women Suffering From Eating Disorders


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Animals can get us through the hardest of times. While many of us cannot use science to back up our sixth sense that animals “get” us, there seems to be a common understanding among pet owners that pets can make a person feel calmer and more connected. Recently though, many science-minded people have increasingly turned to the laboratory to discover if there is any basis to the claim that animals make people feel calmer, as well as what the application of those findings are. It turns out, it wasn’t just a hunch; animals really do have a positive effect on our health.

For example, in an article published by NPR enumerating the positive effects of animal interaction on human health and the people who research it, it was noted that an early study of animal-human interaction found that simply petting a dog can decrease a person’s blood pressure. It was also found that interacting with animals can increase a person’s levels of oxytocin, a hormone that has been shown to have a hand in human bonding and well as cell regeneration. 

As more and more researchers, scientists and doctors have confirmed the positive effects that animal interactions can have on human well-being, they have begun to focus on the application of this knowledge. Animals are now being used more than ever for different kinds of therapies. 

One organization that has found animal therapy to be particularly useful is Soulpaws, a San Diego-based nonprofit that offers animal-therapy programs to women who are suffering and recovering from eating disorders. First created by Shannon Kopp and Dr. Annie Peterson, Soulpaws holds monthly meetings in which participants engage in group therapy, as well as self-reflection, all the while being surrounded by animals, including shelter pets. The program, which is based off of multiple studies on animal therapy and human-animal interactions, affords each participant time to engage with the animal on a one-on-one basis. The organization also holds online meetings during which participants can work with their own pets at home. In addition to caring for humans, Soulpaws, in conjunction with the San Diego Humane Society, works to ensure that its animal therapists are well taken care of, by finding foster families and forever homes for the dogs that participate in its monthly meetings. 

In an interview with People Magazine, Kopp disclosed her struggle with binge eating and bulimia. Kopp found that her spending time with shelter dogs at the San Diego Humane Society, where she worked, helped her overcome her bulimia. Now she works to help others overcome their eating disorders with animal interactions.  

As scientists and therapists continue to study the effects animals have on our health, we will increasingly see more nuanced uses of animals for therapy. As animal lovers, it is important we continue to follow the latest studies in animal therapies so we can inform people who might benefit from the information, but as Soulpaws shows us, it is equally important to make sure that the animals who help their humans on a daily basis are also being looked out for as well. 

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