Breaking Down the Therapeutic Impact of Animals Like ‘Caesar the No Drama Llama’

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Photo: Getty Images / JUAN MABROMATA
While the federal response to protests in Portland, Oregon, is best described as frightening, a man and his therapy animal from the town of Jefferson drove 60 miles north to bring the city an unusual effort to calm tensions and foster joy. "Caesar the No Drama Llama" is a 6-year-old retired Argentine grand champion show llama and he's always ready for hugs.

"[Protesters] will be clapping, chanting, stomping, and all of a sudden I’ll get up with Caesar and the next thing I know, everyone will just band around Caesar," McCool tells the Washington Post. "Caesar brings calm and defuses tension within these extremely volatile situations because everyone loves him as much as he loves everyone."

Experts In This Article

Throughout the country, the use of animals as a complement to wellness and mental health practices is gaining popularity. College campuses host therapy dogs during finals week. Equine-assisted therapy is very much a thing. And you remember goat yoga. McCool refers to Caesar as a therapy llama, but what do therapy animals actually do? Carla Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author, explains that while animals like Caesar can't help you talk through your trauma, they can have an powerful therapeutic effect.

"When we're looking at something like 'Caesar the No Drama Llama,' there's a sense of humor and lightness," says Dr. Manly. "We're getting a dose of feel-good neurochemicals as a result of the simple levity of the situation."

When you pet or give an animal a hug, the impact is even deeper.

"If somebody chooses to stroke an animal, it's much like engaging in therapeutic activities, [like] quilting or sewing," she says. "When we do something repetitive, something that feels safe, the brain tends to relax and it engages the parasympathetic nervous system. And then you add the component that you're touching a live creature. You're touching this warm-blooded creature. There's a sense of being connected a sense of being bonded."

Dr. Manly is in the process of incorporating a new therapy dog into her practice. She only brings the dog in with her client's permission and has seen it make such an impact.

"Even though I'm doing most of my sessions with clients remotely right now, when I have a high-need case I take the dog into the office with me and he is already learning to go to the client and sit by their feet," she says. "You can see the immediate release of anxiety, the immediate—just breathing—that sense of letting down that comes when you're with this creature that has no judgment. Nothing but positive regard for you and makes you feel safe and accepted. It's really a lovely bond to witness."

When you take it to the next level and take ownership of an animal, it can have a rewarding impact on your mental health. For an upcoming episode of Helping Families Be Happy, a podcast Dr. Manly hosts for Familius, she interviewed a Canadian professor who recently got a hamster with his wife and son.

"The hamster came into their lives and was very anxious and very worried and didn't really want them and was running from them, and now the hamster wants to get out of its little home, its little cubicle, and be with them," she says. "It's actually been a very therapeutic element in their family relationship because they've been able to see how they've affected another creature's life. And so again, the little creature the little hamster gives them that piece of levity, the humor, but also gives us another sense of connection and somebody to tend to, somebody to nurture other than the self."

Of course, you won't receive all of these benefits from this type of therapy if you're uncomfortable with animals. But if you love them, you're likely notice a difference in your mood. Bear in mind, however, that the therapeutic impact of animals often isn't enough on its own. If you have something to work through, you'll still want to consider traditional talk therapy. "Therapy animals can be part of talk therapy, which can help you to get to the root of the issue," says Dr. Manly.

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