Celebrating A Special Friendship

Animals Help Amputees Through the Difficult Times

By Rick Bowers

When Karolyn Smith saw a Facebook post in 2014 about two abandoned kittens, including one who had a partial amputation of its right hind leg, the longtime animal lover took notice. After being chosen from the many people who also wanted to adopt them, she named the kitten with the missing limb Sophia and the other kitten Leonidas.

Smith suffers from post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI), mild traumatic brain injury, and spinal injuries as a result of a roadside bomb attack in Iraq in 2005 and says the cats are like medicine for her. She says that just touching them improves her mood.

“When kittens purr,” she says, “they release oxytocin—a natural feel-good chemical that your brain produces when you’re working out or doing something that you really like. And usually those with PTSI have some sort of depression. If you hold a cat and it starts purring, your body automatically will release this feel-good chemical.”

Now an inspirational speaker and volunteer counselor for veterans with PTSI, Smith tells others about Sophia and their special relationship. Sharing Sophia’s story helps her connect better with people who have no connection to the military and who might not understand PTSI.

Sophia. Image courtesy of Karolyn Smith.

“Not everybody likes the military, and not everybody likes veterans,” she says, “but 99 percent of people on the planet like animals.”

Based on her own experience and how the kittens helped her and a friend with their PTSI and depression, she realized that Sophia might also be able to help others. So she set a goal to get Sophia certified as a therapy animal.

Smith’s experiences with Sophia also inspired her to write an illustrated children’s book titled Sophia, The Bionic Cat that was published in November 2016 (www.3PawsUp.com).

A Myth About PTSI

Some people believe that PTSI, also called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), affects only those who have been injured in assaults, major catastrophes, or war. But people can develop PTSI from other traumatic experiences, even those they only witnessed or that were experienced by somebody they care about. Johns Hopkins researchers also found that nearly one-quarter of ICU survivors may suffer from PTSI.

As Smith realized, animals can indeed help. In addition to providing companionship, some animals can be trained to help people with tasks such as retrieving or transporting items, opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, helping with balance, calming them, helping them control their anger, and making them feel safe.

“It’s important to find others who have been through what you have,” says Smith, “because the most troubling thing is thinking you’re the only one who is going through something.” And those others don’t have to be human, she notes.

Ken Bylo, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam and has PTSI, plays with his service dog, Cowboy. U.S. Air Force image by David Bedard.

A Special Bond

The Wims family adopted their cat Charlie, who was born missing a front paw and part of its left hind leg, about five years ago. Tracie Wims was reluctant to adopt Charlie at first because the family already had several pets. But, when the woman who was caring for the abandoned kitten expressed concern that finding her a home would be difficult due to her missing limbs, Wims agreed to take her.

“I immediately knew that it didn’t matter how many pets we already had, we were going to adopt Charlie,” recalls Wims, whose mother and son, Isaiah, were born with limb differences that affected their left arms.

The adoption turned out to be a great decision.

“Isaiah can relate to Charlie’s challenges and her strengths,” Wims says. “After we brought Charlie home, Isaiah was sitting with her, and I overheard him encouraging her. He said, ‘See Charlie, I have a special arm just like you have a special leg.’”

In her interactions with other pets, Charlie can do most things that they can. As a result, watching her has helped the family’s friends, particularly young children, learn about limb difference and be more accepting of Isaiah’s abilities.

Great Icebreakers

Amy Compton, PhD, has had similar experiences. Compton is a recently retired instructor of psychology and a member of the Triangle Amputee Group, a support group in North Carolina. Although she is not an amputee, she’s trained as an amputee peer visitor. She and her amputee poodle, Travis, served in the Pet Partners organization as a registered therapy dog team and before that in the Dogs On Call program at the Medical College of Virginia Hospital.

Travis and a friend. Image courtesy of VCU Center for Human-Animal Interaction.

When Compton adopted Travis as a puppy, he was already a rear-leg amputee, so Compton wasn’t surprised when their visiting assignments often included the rooms of those scheduled for amputation surgery.

“I think it was reassuring to them to see Travis, obviously an amputee, but also obviously so well, happy, friendly, and eager to interact with them,” she says. “Sometimes children asked questions about Travis that they must have been wondering about themselves. In response, I could say things like, ‘No, his stump doesn’t hurt. You can feel all over it, and he’d love it if you’d scratch him there and behind his ears.’ Sometimes then, we’d get to see these same kids later in the rehab gym, where Travis could cheer them on.”

Compton says that animal interaction is probably so effective for hospital patients because the animals don’t ask for anything. “They don’t demand answers to any questions or to draw blood or to do anything else uncomfortable—they just want to be with the person and to give their love and undivided attention for a while.”

Amputee animals can also be great additions to a support group meeting, as shown by the experience of Nashville Area Amputees in Tennessee, after a visit from an amputee coonhound. The dog, Hope, had been found along the road with a severely injured leg that had to be amputated. Bren Robinson, a physical therapy assistant who helped start the support group, and her associates with the animal rescue group Middle Tennessee Treasures initiated combining Hope with the support group’s mission.

Hope. Image courtesy of Middle Tennessee Treasures.

“There are plenty of studies documenting how animals can lower stress, reduce blood pressure, etc.,” says Susan Schmidt, facilitator of the support group. “Having an animal that accepts the amputee unconditionally and sits quietly beside them as they share difficult feelings or uncomfortable situations could be a great comfort.”

Schmidt says that having an animal included in future support group meetings would be a bonus.

“Just as with humans, the first look at a dog with an amputated leg takes you aback because they are not what you expect,” she says. “But soon, you realize they are the same as any other dog. Before long, you don’t even see the missing limb. Having that example of acceptance demonstrated by the amputee to the animal enables them to see how it will happen to them also.”

Schmidt also notes how important it is for new amputees to be able to interact with other amputees who have successful careers, date, marry, have children, participate in sports, and live full lives. It demonstrates for them that they can still do everything they want to do.

“Interacting with an amputee animal demonstrates the same things,” she says. “As a dog meets another dog, they sniff each other just like before, they play tug of war, they run, they mate, they have puppies, etc. Again, life continues on, just with a few adaptations.”

Get Out and Meet People (and Animals)

For amputees who can’t have pets or can’t wait for a therapy animal to visit them, there are other opportunities available to enjoy the rewards of interaction with animals. Equine-assisted activity and therapy centers, including McKeever’s First Ride and Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International centers, provide access to horses and the benefits they can offer physically and emotionally through riding, driving, and grooming activities.

Relationships formed with horses through equine-assisted activities can have a positive emotional impact. Image courtesy of PATH International.

“There are also cafes popping up around the world where you can go to have coffee and pet kittens,” says Smith. “They recognize that it is so euphoric for people who have chronic illness to come and chill out and have this natural feel-good chemical come out without any drugs. It’s like a ‘soulful massage.’”

And it works quickly, she says. “For me, it just takes seconds. It puts you in such a different mental position. And maybe some of it is a placebo effect, but you can’t be frustrated, upset, and worried when you’re around them. You just can’t.”

“If you have something on the planet that is exactly like you, whether it’s a person or an animal,” says Smith, “it’s your absolute support group. It’s, as we say in the military, your ‘battle buddy.’”

At equine-assisted-activity centers around the country, amputees can build strength, balance, and confidence with instructors experienced in creating adaptations to suit their needs. Image courtesy of PATH International.

For More Information

Assistance Dogs International

Canine Companions for Independence

Combat Canines

Dogs On Call

International Association of Assistance Dog Partners

McKeever’s First Ride

Pet Partners

Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International

Shepherds for Lost Sheep

The Present (short video)

Warriors’ Best Friend

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