Pet Therapy for Eating Disorders

The reason emotional support animals work well for eating disorder patients

“My eight-year battle with bulimia began at sixteen with a plan to lose some weight. Not to lose my teeth and hopes and dreams. Not to end up hospitalized at an eating disorder rehab in the middle of the Arizona desert. Not to break my mother’s heart. Not to carry around lozenges for my perpetually sore throat, Visine for my bloodshot eyes and paper towels in my car to clean up after vomiting. Not to throw up 20 times a night, every night.

This secret bulimic life I had was not the life I wanted, yet it seemed that no matter how much therapy or medication or rehab, I was a hopeless case. Each failed attempt at recovery only added shame to the pot and further convinced me that recovery was impossible.

Nothing changed — not my perspective or my behavior — until I started working at the San Diego Humane Society in my mid-20s. It was there, in dirty kennels and tiny rooms, that an unexpected and transformative kind of healing took place. It was there, in little doses, that I began making room in my heart, instead of my stomach, for the uncomfortable.

Whenever I felt depressed or overwhelmed, I’d find a big dog, usually a pit bull who believed she was a lap dog, and I’d hold onto her bulky body like an anchor as waves of emotion and destructive urges passed through me.

When every molecule of my being wanted to numb out and run away, she’d help me to feel and stay. With a creature who knew no other way of being than in the here and now, I could drop my methods of self-protection and let my tender, real, vulnerable self be seen. The anxious and broken person who walked into the kennel faded into the background, and in its place, there was simply an outpouring of love between a girl and a dog.

That love — love the most desperate dogs showed me at my most desperate times — is the reason I’m alive today.

Eating disorders are complex, biologically-influenced disorders, often triggered by trauma. Anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder and other types of eating disorders offer an illusory sense of protection—a temporary shield from pain and discomfort. This shield feels like it is protecting us, when in reality, we are being crushed under it’s weight.

To drop the shield means to get uncomfortable, and to engage in the most challenging work of our lives.” -Dr. Annie Peterson for the HuffPost