Goolbai Gunasekara explains how animal love can help your offspring


Children tend to take pets for granted, if their families own them. If cats and dogs are not part of the home environment, kids don’t think of them too much. As for me, my parents were not particularly attached to animals.

My American mother owned a horse that her uncle kept for her, on his farm. It was no thoroughbred, and she saw the horse only during the holidays, when she visited her cousins during summer. She liked her horse, but it would be an exaggeration to say that she loved it, or even missed it during the rest of the year.

She was also petrified of cats. Her fear extended to even fur coats that reminded her of cats!

The result was that animals were not a part of our daily life. And the fact that we were a vegetarian family complicated things even more – having a pet who would need a meat or fish diet was an issue.

So I felt no loss!

The age had not yet dawned where animal rights were being upheld. Nor was any special attention being paid to the relationship between animals and humans. Pets were considered to be pleasant additions to family life.

If a dog or cat was around the house, it was probably tolerated and loved by one or two family members. Certainly, nobody at that time had even a passing thought as to what emotional benefits could accrue to a child by having a pet in the house.

Things have changed. ‘The outside of a dog is the very best thing for the inside of a human,’ is the new thinking. Every child deserves happiness, but doesn’t always receive it. I am not even thinking about children traumatised by war. I’m speaking of children leading ‘normal’ lives in Sri Lanka, who sometimes do not realise how lucky they are to be living in this warm, lovely country.

Currently, extensive research is being conducted on how a child’s mental health can be improved through animal therapy.

How does this work?

Well, for a start, pets offer a child (its owner) unconditional love and acceptance. Where else would anyone receive this kind of affection? Studies reveal that pets can work their way into the troubled psyches of children (and even adults), and create a happy home.

The Childhood Residential Treatment Centre, in Portland – in Oregon, in the US – uses animals to reach children who have difficulties relating to others. It teaches them to express their feelings, and master new communication skills.

This new and unexpected research has benefits that interest me only so far as they’re useful to helping the children in my care. What would I tell the parents of a ‘difficult’ child?

In the light of modern research, there is a lot to be shared.

Firstly, pets can be used to help a child develop a rapport with others. This is not a skill with which all children are born. Secondly, children with low self-esteem will enjoy a mighty boost when they receive an outpouring of love from an animal – the acceptance that a child is offered by a pet cannot be matched by a human.

A child becomes more receptive to sharing and cooperating with siblings, when he has a pet to love. Parents find him easier to handle, too! And strangely, kids who care for a pet are found to be socially more competent than others. Such children feel good about themselves, and seem better able to understand other kids’ feelings.

There’s a study being conducted in a couple of universities in the US, where research promotes human-animal links and is constantly indicating new findings in this field. There is an ‘extreme’ treatment, which suggests ‘total immersion’ – kids may actually live on a farm; or they may be allowed to play constantly with various animals (mostly dogs), with whom they interact for a specific length of time.

The results have been amazing.

However, I cannot say if there is any specific place in Sri Lanka to which I can send students who might benefit from this new thinking. Of course, in these days of apartment living, parents cannot rush out and buy a pet, which may often be forbidden by condominium rules. While cats may sometimes be suitable, dogs are best if one is engaging in animal therapy.

There are ‘offbeat’ pets as well. One of my pupils owned a python that he kept in the house, and frequently took out of its cage to wind around himself. On a ‘Special Pets’ day, he even brought it to school! It had a short and speedy stay there, thankfully. He fed it every day, and cared for it lovingly. He is now a father, and I can testify to the fact that he was a good (if offbeat) pet owner.

Speaking for myself, it was only in my very senior citizen years that I ever loved a pet. I adored our little toy poodle Lili. She died unexpectedly, after three years… and the gap she left in my life will never be filled.

And, yes! She taught me something: that humans can love unconditionally, too.