The bond between humans and animals is amazing. In many households, pets are an important part of the family dynamic, but in others they are have an even more important role.
The advantages of pet rehabilitation is nothing new. From long-term care facilities, veterans with post dramatic stress disorder to children with intellectual and development disabilities, pet therapy, as it is more widely known, has huge benefits. Let's face it, the mere sight of a cute puppy, fluffy kitten, or sweet bunny is enough to lift anyone spirits. But whilst I would never advocate getting a dog, cat or any other pet simply because you or a loved one is ill, the proven health benefits of animals are vast. They reduce stress, provide great company, distraction, boost vitality and are totally loyal.
I got my dog, Noodle, as a puppy when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and she was my little companion throughout my treatment. We had made the decision to get a dog beforehand, and the timing couldn't have been more perfect. Her cheeky little puppy antics made me laugh despite the endless tears and her constant desire for cuddles suited me well as there were days that all I could do was lounge around on the sofa streaming endless hours of Netflix.
People talk about feeling very isolated when going through cancer and I can empathise as I was on my own for much of the time and had just moved away from friends and family, but with Noodle, I didn't feel alone. She never left my side, even when I had a shower or was on the loo (OK, that was a bit annoying!). She even jumped into the bath to be with me once...only to realise that it was too hot at which point she leapt out and left a trail of water and Jo Malone bubbles round the house. She never cared if I looked like crap and kept me company when I was awake night after night, high on steroids and suffering from awful night sweats. The only time we were separated was when I was actually having my treatment, when she waited patiently in the car, although the nurses and other patients always wanted to say hello and see how fast she was growing.
When I had bad news from scans or biopsy results she let me bury my face into her neck and just let me sob and sob into her warm fur, while occasionally nudging me with her nose or snuggling in further.
There were health benefits too. Having a dog forced me to walk every day during my treatment and after my operations. I had help if I needed, but I managed to walk her almost every day, even when feeling really grotty, mainly because it was impossible to say no to her pleasing eyes, but it was worth it watching her happily spring down the lane, sniffing out squirrels. All of the leaflets nagged about exercise being good for survival rates and being the best thing to combat treatment fatigue, so to have this little fluffball incentivising me to do this was exactly what I needed. It was a bit of a struggle after my operations as I had stitches across my chest and my upper torso was very sore, but I got round it by tying her lead to my belt. A bit embarrassing when she pulled on the lead, forcing me to do thrusting movements at an oncoming stranger.
As a result, along with many other words, she understands 'cuddle', 'bed' and 'sofa' and if you ask her for a cuddle she will put her front legs around your neck and bury her face in your neck. (Although sometimes she does this to strangers which catches them off guard a little).
She was my companion 24/7 and I never knew you could love a pet SO much. I am just dreading the day when I have to return the favour when she is old and poorly. Never a dry eye in our house when Supervet is on!
The fact that pets provide therapeutic benefits is proven and there are even lots of charities that allow you to register your pets for therapy to visit children, adults and the elderly in hospitals, hospices and care homes. I would have loved to have done that with Noodle, but am not sure that her bouncy nature and desire to clamber on the bed and distribute cuddles would be a good combination with fragile patients.
So, to my little furry friend, thank you for always being by my side and for getting me through my treatment.
I would love to see your photos of your fluffy friends and hear your stories of how your pets helped you through.
Anikka Burton is the founder of www.notanotherbunchofflowers.com and was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 33.