Opinion

James Bowen: Street Cat Bob and the healing power of pets

Bob helped James Bowen overcome homelessness, addiction and despair – but it’s not just cats that can cure our ills...

The title page of one of my books, A Gift from Bob, carries a quote from the father of psychotherapy Sigmund Freud (below). It reads: “Time spent with cats is never wasted.”

At the time they were written, a hundred years or so ago, they weren’t exactly regarded as the wisest words the great man had ever committed to paper. A century later, however, they seem as profound as almost anything Freud wrote about the human mind.

Scientists now acknowledge that animals can transform our lives. They can provide vital emotional and psychological help to people suffering from everything from loneliness to epilepsy, illiteracy to terminal illness. Time spent with cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, horses – you name it – is most definitely never wasted. Quite the opposite, in fact, as I know all too well.

No one is more aware of animals’ almost superhuman healing powers than me. I have loved cats for most of my life and, nine years ago, forged a bond with one particular feline, an injured street cat that I named Bob. I was at a particularly low ebb at the time, recovering from addiction and a period of homelessness. After taking him in and nursing him back to health, Bob gave me the direction, the sense of purpose, the responsibility, the love and – perhaps most of all – the hope I needed to set my life back on track. He saved my life, in many ways. Around the UK – and the world – other animals are doing the same every day, many of them as part of a growing number of charities raising awareness of the magic of animal therapy.

Bob and I, for instance, have raised funds for the Ebony Horse Club in London, where underprivileged children benefit from interacting with and riding ponies. Bob and I have visited their centre (pictured, bottom) and seen, at first hand, the amazing work they do. By exposing children from some of the toughest estates in south London to horses, they give them life skills and a sense of well-being that they simply wouldn’t get in their home environments. Children learn not just to ride horses but to clear out stables, to interact with other children and to generally improve their social skills. It’s a wonderful place.

These amazing charities also use animals for another vital cause, one that Bob and I have tried to promote – literacy

While the Ebony Horse Club focuses on young people, a similar charity, the Elisabeth Svendsen Trust, takes donkeys rather than ponies into residential care homes and hospices across the UK to brighten the days of people at the other end of life.

“Faces light up when they see their four-legged friends walk into communal lounges or even, in the case of less mobile residents, into their bedrooms as our special donkeys are uniquely trained to go up in lifts,” says Suzi Cretney from the Trust, which has six centres across the UK – in Belfast, Birmingham, Ivybridge, Leeds, Manchester and Sidmouth.

Of course, cats and dogs are the most popular animals when it comes to providing therapy.

One of the oldest and most successful national charities in this area is Pets As Therapy, founded in 1983 by Lesley Scott-Ordish. The charity and its volunteers aim to use therapeutic visits to tackle issues from loneliness and debilitating mental and physical conditions such as dementia and autism. In a similar vein, Alamanda Therapy Animals is a non-profit charity based in Essex which introduces dogs, cats and miniature horses to people who are ill or dying.

James Bowen and Street Cat Bob at the Ebony Horse Club in London.

One of their therapy cats, Goliath, is particularly popular and visits hospices, care homes, special needs schools and hospitals, brightening up the lives of patients of all ages.

These amazing charities also use animals for another vital cause, one that Bob and I have tried to promote – literacy. Pets As Therapy animals, for instance, spend a lot of time with children and encourage them to improve their literacy by reading with, or more specifically to, animals. This form of reading really helps them to develop their confidence, interest and enjoyment in reading. Pets As Therapy’s pioneering Read2Dogs scheme has helped many children who were otherwise reluctant to read.

The power of animals to help humans is pretty much inexhaustible when you start looking into it. Their abilities to help in the medical world, for instance, are being tapped into more and more.

Again, I know this from personal experience with Bob, who has always seemed to sense when I am feeling low or poorly. Cats and dogs have a unique ability to detect illness and can sniff out everything from epilepsy to diabetes. They are so gifted in this area, one study revealed that dogs are more accurate in detecting cancers than some of the most sophisticated scanners. So other charities are tapping into this amazing ability. For instance, Medical Detection Dogs is just one of many organisations helping to train assistance dogs for insulin-dependent diabetics in the UK.

Dentists in the US are beginning to use dogs, and in particular golden retrievers, to calm and comfort patients rather than using gas or sedatives

The charity’s website tells the remarkable story of a seven-year-old boy, Luke, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was just two years old. His mother told earlier this year how Luke’s therapy dog – the wonderfully named Jedi – had saved his life. Using his incredible canine sense of smell, Jedi is able to monitor Luke’s blood sugar levels. One evening, when Luke’s levels started to drop dangerously while he was sleeping, Jedi alerted his family. They are convinced that if he hadn’t been with them in the house, Luke would never have woken up.

Animals are also useful in helping people recover from illness – strokes, for instance.

The Stroke and PAT project (more below) is a collaborative venture between Pets As Therapy, Sallie Bollans, founding director of Stroke Rehab Dogs, and the Ruth Winston Centre. This brilliant scheme provides therapeutic opportunities for stroke survivors, of all ages and backgrounds, who have specific rehabilitation goals and who would benefit from working with companion animals.

The possibilities are endless – and new applications for animals are being developed all the time, it seems. For instance, dentists in the US are beginning to use dogs, and in particular golden retrievers, to calm and comfort patients rather than using gas or sedatives. Dogs will often lie across the patient’s body with their head placed on their lap while the dentist carries out their procedures. This not only distracts and calms them but the dog’s weight keeps them still as well.

Who knows what will come next? It might be that Bob too will join this growing army of healing animals. We are a little distracted at the moment but it’s definitely in our minds to help these brilliant charities in a more practical way. Bob has been the most remarkable therapy for me. It would be wonderful if he could help others as well.

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