It seems like every day someone comes up with a new therapy that is going to bring well-being to all. If you missed it, cow cuddling is a variation on equine therapy that is peaking people’s interest. And as strange as it sounds, it may actually work. For a sizeable fee, you can spend an hour hugging a cow, resting your head while it lays down to chew its cud, or taking part in its grooming. You can also just talk to it, with the guarantee it will not talk back.
I was a skeptic, but some people with anxiety have found equine therapy helpful, and indeed, a growing body of research is showing that contact with farm animals may expose us to a richer bacterial world that improves our microbiome and, indirectly, our emotional life. Then there are the psychological benefits of a nostalgic return to farm life for many city dwellers. Not to mention any time that we remove ourselves from our busy schedules is bound to have a positive impact on our psychological well-being.
The human-animal bond is, no doubt, good for our mental health. Entire books have been written on the topic by authors like Chris Blazina and his colleagues. From service dogs (or service animals) to goat yoga, many people are finding contact with an animal a therapeutically sound idea.
I’ve come across this connection many times in my work. Froma Walsh, a leading scholar on family resilience, writes extensively about the impact of a pet on family dynamics, arguing that an animal in the home can improve family dynamics.
I've also noticed in my work how animals are becoming more and more important to building resilience. In a recent survey of programs that build resilience I came across an incredible school initiative in southern England. Gulval School is a small elementary school whose principal, Paul Baker, has integrated farm animals into the curriculum as a way to engage children and their families. (Click here to listen to an interview with Paul, and see some video of the school.)
Maybe, at a time when more and more clinical work is going online, the connection with a living breathing person (or animal) is becoming more cherished. While I’d be skeptical if the impact of the contact endures after the actual event, the event itself is likely to be positive, if you don’t mind a little dung on your boots and pants. After all, if hugging a cow makes you a little calmer, a little happier, and a little dirtier, then maybe that is exactly what we all need these days. Let’s mooo-ve the therapist out of the way; here comes Betsy the cow!
Blazina, C., Boyraz, Güler, Shen-Miller, David, & SpringerLink. (2011). The psychology of the human-animal bond : A resource for clinicians and researchers. New York: Springer.
Walsh, F. (2009). Human-animal bonds I: the relational significant of companion animals. Family Process, 48(4), 462-80.