Our connection with animals can be traced back to the cave paintings in Lasceaux, France and El Castillo, Spain. This early documentation of our reliance and eventual interdependence with animals signifies the importance to universal human culture. Anthropomorphism, attributing human motives and characteristics to animals, may have been the result from the initial foray into domestication as a reliable food source, mode of transportation, or source of protection.
Charles Darwin, the famous or infamous naturalist depending on which side of the pulpit you’re on, proposed evolutionary continuity which states the differences among species are differences in degree rather than kind. His theories argue strongly for the presence of animal emotions, empathy, and moral behavior. All mammals, we as humans included, share neuroanatomical structures such as the amygdala and the neurochemical pathways in the limbic system which are important for feelings, emotional behaviors and motivation. Spindle cells are located in the part of the brain which is linked with social organization, empathy, intuition about the feeling of others and quick response gut reactions. Humans and great apes share this physiological connection in the same are of the brain as humpback, fin, killer and sperm whales.
Medical research reveals humans have opiate receptors which form the biochemical basis for our feelings and emotions. Depending on what’s going on around us determines the release of dopamine, serotonin, or endorphins. We all feel love, sadness, joy, jealousy, anger, and sorrow. Dr. Gregory Berns, neuroscientist and author of the book, How Dogs Love Us, used MRI scanning to determine that certain parts of the dog brain look and react similarly to the human brain. A primary focus of his work was on the intrinsic reward system hard-wired into the dog but also the recognition and reaction to familiar humans.
During the late 18th century in York,England, mentally ill patients were prescribed animal care on a farm as a means of rehabilitation. Soon after, the advent of equine therapy began as other physicians used riding horses to treat neurological disorders to try to improve motor control and alleviate depression. Studies at the University of Pennsylvania found that when a person pets a dog, stress levels are reduced as marked by a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate as well as an improved feeling of well-being. Although the world becomes increasingly smaller every day through instantaneous news feeds and the apocalyptic reach of social media, people in many ways are becoming more isolated. Pets encourage touch, conversation, and often laughter. They inspire and rely on us for exercise. They can help mental health disorders by affecting brain chemistry as attested to by the countless pictures online of the homeless and the love shared with their dogs. People criticize the homeless or mentally ill as unfit to have a dog as they can’t apparently take care of themselves within the parameters of societal norms. More often than not that dog is the lifeline unable to be found from other human beings.
Service animals are no longer limited to those with physical disabilities or limitations. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, emotional disturbance, and even anorexia are benefitting from animal therapy. Animals are used in hospitals, rehab facilities, and assisted living homes to uplift, comfort, and bring joy. Dr.Temple Grandin has a Ph.D. in animal science and is also an adult with autism who advocates for the rights of those who are identified as autistic. According to Grandin, verbal language is not required for communication with animals. Many nonverbal children with autism really understand animals because they are attuned to the subtle body postures many people don’t notice. She also notes that there is a simplicity to the emotional levels of those with autism and that of animals which aids in this understanding. “Seeing life through the animal’s eyes” is often listed as a fundamental skill in animal communication.
Many highly sensitive people prefer the companionship of animals to that of other humans. It’s easier. It’s true. And it touches a purity of emotional levels that may be difficult to reach with other people. The unconditional love and acceptance we share with our animals often helps us to have more empathy and compassion in our daily lives.
For many of us, our dog or other animal companion is our best friend, confidante, traveling buddy, and daily motivator to get outside and get some exercise and fresh air. We need them as much as they need us providing a reciprocity not usually found with such completeness. Some have been blessed with an animal connection that surpassed all the others in this lifetime. That special dog, cat, horse that touched us at a soul level of love and understanding. As the world becomes a gentler place and more and more people awaken to their own innate peace and knowing, perhaps we’ll find this compassion and love for one another that we are so blessed to share with our animals.
‘There is little that separates humans from other sentient beings – we all feel pain, we all feel joy, we all deeply crave to be alive and life freely, and we all share this planet together.’ – Gandhi.
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