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How Pets Can Be Used in Hypnotherapy

Personal Perspective: Pets can help maintain a trance state.

Key points

  • For many people, a pet is a major source of comfort.
  • Stroking a pet has beneficial physiological effects.
  • A pet can also help a patient achieve a hypnotic state.
Anna Romanova/Shutterstock
Source: Anna Romanova/Shutterstock

By Rebecca N. Cherry, M.D., with Ran D. Anbar, M.D.

A faculty member once told a group of us about ordering a beautiful certificate in hypnosis for his cat. Mr. Whiskers, I should add, was not a therapy animal. The anecdote was intended as a comment on the value of a mail-order credential.

But now, considering the story in another light, I've concluded that Mr. Whiskers (or was it Dr. Whiskers?) might really have been onto something.

Petting a cat or dog feels good. In addition to those subjective reactions, researchers have found that stroking a pet has beneficial physiological effects: Heart rate variability goes up, indicating stimulation of the parasympathetic "rest and digest" response, which is central to hypnotic states. Cortisol levels go down (Petersson et al., 2017).

I didn't really get it myself until a few months into the COVID pandemic when our locked-down, anxious family introduced a rescue dog to our household. Zara is, frankly, not a perfect dog. She is terrified of any attempt at training, she sheds, and (although I never told my husband) I once found her on the dining table scavenging for crumbs.

And yet. Within just a few days, I was head-over-heels and felt at risk of becoming one of those people who make their dogs a major topic of any conversation. I couldn't imagine anything more delightful than sitting on the couch next to her, smelling that distinctive doggy smell, and stroking her ears.

I became more proactive in asking about the animals in my patients' lives. During telehealth appointments, I became more attuned to the flicker of a tail at the corner of the computer screen or the sound of barking in the background.

Pets and Hypnosis

For many kids, a pet is a major source of comfort, and like me, they identify playing or snuggling with a pet as a "favorite place." Especially given the range of different sensory inputs—auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile—associated with this activity, their thoughts or memories of a pet can be a reliable resource when children immerse themselves in a hypnotic experience.

They can access the softness and scent of the pet's fur, the warmth of its small body, the sounds and vibration of purring, and the contented expressions or shifts in position.

Even after the elicitation of a trance state, pets remain hypnotically helpful. Examples involving pets can clarify a child's understanding of their own strengths.

For instance, by realizing that they have helped their now-purring cat find contentment and comfort, they might understand their innate ability to comfort themselves. The warmth of their own hand can then serve as a hypnosis trigger, reminding them of this ability while also evoking a soothing memory.

Even an imaginary pet can be a source of strength and calm. One little boy came to his second appointment with the cardboard enclosure he had made for his new (imaginary) pet snake, which made him feel safe enough to sleep through the night in his own room for the first time.

Whether real or imaginary, accompanying patients during a telehealth session or recalled from the couch in the office, a pet can help patients achieve a hypnotic state and more fully realize their own capabilities.

Dr. Whiskers has, by now, become a valued colleague.

Rebecca N. Cherry, M.D. is a pediatric GI physician/clinical hypnotherapist at Deep Well Health Care.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Petersson, M., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Nilsson, A., Gustafson, L. L., Hydbring-Sandberg, E., & Handlin, L. (2017). Oxytocin and cortisol levels in dog owners and their dogs are associated with behavioral patterns: an exploratory study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8:1796.

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