The National Catholic Review

Even without the worries related to Sept. 11, we are a people under stress—pressured by the daily grind. How we cope, and to what extent we succeed, is an individual mater. Job security, economic stability, family and health matters usually top the list of stress inducers. No wonder health and fitness centers are thriving, Zen retreats have gained popularity and “virtual” vacations pose an alluring quick fix.

A piece in the Workplace section of a recent issue of The New York Times entitled “To Help Make It Through the Day, Schedule Minivacations as Needed” offered some pretty interesting tips. While I agree that we should take periodic walk or stand-up breaks—I get mine by frequently climbing stairs between my floor and the central editorial office—flying away to a remote desert island for 10 minutes seems a tad impractical. But, as they say, whatever works for you.

For children who are emotionally withdrawn, as well as adults who suffer heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, Alzheimer’s, loneliness and a variety of other problems, relieving tension (very often the underlying cause) may be a paw away. Or maybe a claw. Or a feather. It has long been known, and studies confirm, that the presence of a pet in one’s life can have a positive effect on both physical and mental health.

Specifically in terms of love- and trust-building, animals can perform wonders. Indeed, there are therapeutic benefits of engaging with animals, which includes simply caring for a pet as a volunteer. Sad to say, the city’s animal shelters are overpopulated. But thanks to “dog-walking” (or “cat-walking,” in a manner of speaking) programs, young professionals—whose job or residential restrictions preclude pet ownership—give time daily to do just that. And what a difference it makes in the life of both animal and volunteer.

I occasionally watch PAX-TV on cable and particularly enjoy their program “Miracle Pets.” One moving segment on a recent episode profiled a young African American boy, actually a street kid, who had been shunted from one foster home to another and never learned how to socialize. He often ran away from families and schools because he either lacked the skills to relate to people or just didn’t trust them. That all changed, however, when he was enrolled in a horse program (in upstate New York) called Green Chimneys. Little by little, the barrier disintegrated and he became a responsible and loving groomsman. His life completely turned around. Some might rightly say that he was nurtured by, guided by, the animals in his care.

Over the years I have owned two dogs. Today it’s birds—four beautiful cockatiels. Their antics continually amaze and delight me. And when faced with a choice of two sets of shoulders (or two laps) on which to perch, they usually select my mother’s. (Why? Could they possibly sense her frailty, ill health and need for “connection?”) Although kingdoms apart in a manner of speaking, all these pets have been a source of renewed well-being and even lightheartedness when most needed.

For my 92-year-old mother, visiting with pets either at home or on the street during our regular wheelchair “strolls” engenders a tiny spark of recognition, a sense of calm and, above all, a knowing smile. I make a point to stop everyone with a pet and invite a friendly, momentary exchange. It is truly heartening that people are always ready to oblige.

While sweeping outside my home on a recent weekend, with my mother “supervising” from her wheelchair, I was suddenly distracted by the sound of an oncoming motor. I knew it wasn’t a car and doubted it was a motorcycle. I looked up to see approaching a paraplegic woman in a specially designed motorized chair. She was “walking” her dog, attached by a lead to the arm of her chair, and she noted with a smile that he was getting his daily exercise.

All of which proves the power of a strong connection, a bond of love between people and their pets. I salute responsible owners and volunteers for realizing this. And I thank all the furry, feathered and other creatures who give such tremendous love and relieve so much stress in the process.

Patricia A. Kossmann is literary editor of America.

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