Family, friends and technology play an important role for those who are visually impaired or blind but animals do too. From the family pet to a service animal these furry creatures enhance the lives of those with low vision or other disabilities.
Although a guide dog is usually what comes to mind first when people think of service animals; cats, horses, monkeys, and many other animals can be used to help people living with low vision.
Guide dogs were first trained in Germany after World War I to assist soldiers who had been blinded during combat. The Seeing Eye, founded in 1929 was the first organization to train these special pets in the United States.
If you have a condition other than vision loss or blindness that makes it difficult to get around such as multiple sclerosis, debilitating seizures, epilepsy or a variety of other conditions, guide dogs can be trained to assist. They do this by using an ability to detect minute changes in their owner's biochemistry.
One of the most interesting animals trained to help people with disabilities is the miniature horse. The Guide Horse Foundation, founded in 1999, trains miniature horses to perform tasks traditionally associated with guide dogs.
Miniature horses are generally used for service work because they are: usually non-allergenic, less prone to panic in crowds, naturally less aggressive than dogs, and 30 years working life which almost doubles the working life of dogs.
Because miniature horses are stronger than dogs they can help someone with physical disabilities as well as sight disabilities.
Capuchin monkeys are also used to help those with physical disabilities. Native to South America and weighing only between 6 and 10 pounds, these little monkeys have a natural dexterity and propensity for using tools.
Monkey Helpers, founded in Boston in 1979 trains these little monkeys to be the "hands" for people who cannot use their own. They can be trained to bring water, medications, food, phones and other essentials to those who are visually impaired. They may also be trained to assist with feeding and other chores.
Pets and service animals can help in other ways too. Have you ever noticed that you feel better when you're around your pet?
Spending good quality time with a dog, cat or other pet has a positive impact on your mood and your health. Pets can help you fight stress, including anxiety caused by vision loss.
Pet owners, especially those who have a quality relationship with their pet are better off than those without pets. What makes a relationship meaningful varies from person to person.
For those that are active this may include playing fetch or catch with a Frisbee or ball, and for others who cannot get outside, just petting and spending time with their dog or other pet helps them feel connected.
Besides assistance of vision loss, pets can help us have a healthier heart. Dog owners run a lower risk of getting heart disease and typically have lower blood pressure than those who don't have dogs. This is because dog owners walk more and enjoy the companionship of their pet. Studies show that heart attack survivors and those with serious abnormal heart rhythms live longer than non-pet owners with the same heart problems. The interaction reduces the levels of stress hormones and helps your body release a relaxation hormone.
Most pets, especially dogs, can help you connect with other people.
For example, If I saw you walking down the street, I may not be able to comfortably start a conversation with you if I didn't know you, but if you have a dog it allows for a natural and acceptable interaction. People who have pets are generally happier, more trusting, and less lonely than those who don't have pets. They also visit the doctor less frequently for minor problems. Their lives are more fulfilled.
Technology changes every day; our friends don't. Our pets give us a sense of belonging. Besides their loyalty, pets and service animals offer their owners companionship, friendship, affection and unconditional love.