Health September 27, 2022

Animal Attraction

The healing power of pets

Animals hold a special place in our hearts, and nowhere is this truer than Sun Valley, where it’s been said that dogs practically out-number people. The unconditional love and companionship we get from our furry friends feels more necessary than ever these days. And beyond the psychological boost, there are numerous measurable health benefits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the bond between people and pets is linked to decreases in blood pressure, cholesterol and the stress-related hormone, cortisol.

“When COVID-19 hit, adoptions increased – people were so lonely and needed someone to take care of,” said Victoria Gasser, behavior and training manager at Mountain Humane in Hailey. Gasser said the benefits of pet ownership are far-reaching, as pets can help bring people out of their shells as they become more social. One need only look at the people gathered daily at the Warm Springs Dog Park for confirmation.

Swiftsure program manager Kristy Wood works with Owen Brennan and an equine friend.

Cindy Sparks of Hailey has experienced the health benefits of animal interaction firsthand. She opted for a companion of the feline persuasion for her son to help with anxiety associated with his autism. Sparks says when they went to Mountain Humane to find their new pet, one of the cats up for adoption came over to her son and would not leave his side. “We knew he was the one,” she says, “he chose us.” She said the cat is like a comfort care animal in their home, providing constant companionship and a calming presence.

And it’s not just small animals offering benefits. Horses harness incredible magnetism and have long been used in therapeutic environments to provide emotional and social support, especially to people with disabilities. “Riding a horse strengthens muscles and helps with both coordination and balance,” says Paul Bennett, executive director of Swiftsure Ranch Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Bellevue. Bennett said the real benefit, however, is seeing the rider take what they’ve learned in the ring out into life. “It’s really about empowerment and freedom,” he adds.

Acey Shaw engages in a therapy session with Henry, a Fjord horse at Swiftsure.

One rider at Swiftsure Ranch, who was referred by his neurologist after suffering a traumatic brain injury, knows this well. When he’s on a horse, the horse’s gait encourages correct movement, improving his strength and mobility as well as his balance. And perhaps best summing up why we love animals, he says, “By far the most important thing this has given me is hope.”

Pets have countless healing powers, helping us to stay healthy and happy, even in the most extraordinary circumstances. Whether it’s a dog, cat, horse, hamster or goldfish, the rewards you’ll reap by adding an animal to your home will compound for years to come.

This article appears in the Summer 2022 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.