NEWS

Want to Hug a Cow? There Could Be Real Benefits to Farm Animal Therapy

Friendly cow approaching a small child

Verywell / Laura Porter

With all the forms of stress going on in the world right now, doesn’t taking a few minutes out of your day to hug a cow sound calming? Ellie Laks, founder of The Gentle Barn, thinks so. At her non-profit animal rescue and sanctuary in Santa Clarita, California, she offers cow hugging therapy to visitors. 

Laks founded the farm in 1999, but it was a dream in the making since she was seven years old. As she faced challenges growing up, such as finding it hard to fit in and feeling misunderstood, animals brought her comfort. 

“Animals mirror back to us that we have value and worth. We feel gentle when we stroke them, wanted when they approach us, and soothed when we hug them. Animals don’t judge us and we
can be authentically, uniquely us and the animals will always accept us as we are,” Laks says. “Animals have a way of making us feel connected to them, and in turn, connected more deeply to ourselves.” 

With a major in special education and psychology, Laks decided to combine her education with her love of animals. She has over one hundred and seventy rescued animals at her farm, where in addition to hugging cows, people can cuddle turkeys and give pigs tummy rubs. Aside from
the original Gentle Barn in California, Laks has a second location in Nashville, Tennessee, and a third in St. Louis, Missouri. More than 500,000 people have visited her farms to hug an animal. 

How Animals Help People

While more research is needed to fully understand the involvement of animals in the treatment of mental illness, a 2019 study review found that animal-assisted therapy, used as a complementary approach to traditional therapies, leads to several benefits for people with mental illnesses.

For people diagnosed with depression, autism, dementia, or schizophrenia, it can provide changes in their personality, behavior, and physical health, as well as affect their social interactions and cognitive, psychological, and emotional field.

Aviva Vincent, PhD, LMSW, veterinary social worker, says animals can fulfill many roles for people, including the following: 

  • Pet: a companion animal who mutually benefits from the relationship 
  • Emotional support animal: a designation given to a pet (who has no additional training) by a clinician in the form of a letter to allow the animal to live in the home with the person, where they otherwise would not be allowed because the pet helps alleviate symptomology of mental health challenges
  • Therapy animal: typically dogs (sometimes other species) that are trained and have a certification from a reputable organization, such as Therapy Dogs International, who provide support to others 
  • Service animal: trained dogs (miniature horses for visually impaired are acceptable) who provide therapeutic support and act as an appendage to a person who has a disability, so that they can freely access the general public

“In addition to these roles, informally, people share that animals provide love, non-judgmental
support, and a trusting partnership,” says Vincent. 

Aviva Vincent, PhD

[Some] animals are better at being receptive to people, just like us. Some pets just know what to do, they know what ‘their human’ needs, just like sometimes your friend knows when you need a hug, or when you need to go for a walk.

— Aviva Vincent, PhD

As a researcher, she measures the physiological impact of the human-animal bond and says the type of animal that people bond with most is personal. “[Some] animals are better at being receptive to people, just like us. Some pets just know what to do, they know what ‘their human’ needs, just like sometimes your friend knows when you need a hug, or when you need to go for a walk,” Vincent says.

Vincent continues, “With that said, there are some animals whose natural behaviors help us feel better, like dogs who generally want to be petted, or fish who constantly move around so are fun to watch.” 

Finding the Perfect Match

As a clinician, she pairs people with animals depending on their needs. For instance, she provides therapeutic riding to clients at her barn of 40 horses, which are all different sizes, statures, and have different temperaments. 

“I get to think about what a student or individual is feeling and needing in the moment, and then suggest which horse may be able to meet them where they’re at in that very moment. It’s the most beautiful and rewarding part of my job,” says Vincent. 

She explains that animals act as a co-therapist in mental health services, using the language of "collaborator" and "partner" in the therapeutic relationship. “Animals provide a distraction (which can be good), grounding/presence, and novelty. Often, we use the animals' body language to explain human behaviors, so they truly are mirrors that hold up what we are thinking and feeling, and even how we behave,” says Vincent. 

While Vincent mainly works with horses, Laks says because cows are naturally grounded, centered, and sure of themselves, their energy is inspiring. “Unlike a dog or cat that we hold, cows outweigh us by thousands of pounds, so when they stand still to be with us, they are choosing us in a clearer way than most animals on a leash or in our arms,” she says. 

However, because Laks is not trained as a therapist, she does not provide clinical therapy at her farm. She believes people who spend much of the day lost in their thoughts; thinking of the past, future, or worries, can benefit from being with cows as they encourage people to be immersed in present time, “bringing us the same healing benefits as meditating.” 

She points out a story of a woman who visited her after her infant son suddenly passed away. The woman’s therapist recommended that she visit The Gentle Barn for cow hug therapy. Laks brought the woman to a matriarch cow, Karma. The woman sat down and closed her eyes as she rested her back against Karma. 

“While the woman’s eyes were closed, all our cows walked over and laid down forming a circle around this woman…They all remained this way for an hour. At the end of the session, the woman opened her eyes and smiled and started telling me about her son,” says Laks. 

Where Can I Experience Farm Therapy?

While there are many different farms and organizations across the country that offer animal-assisted therapy, below are a few to consider.
Lucky's Farm
in Durand, Illinois, provides Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association to help treat PTSD, anxiety, depression, and adolescent development issues.

Loudoun Therapeutic Riding, in Lovettsville, Virginia, uses horses to connect with people with physical, intellectual, and emotional challenges.

Little Angels Service Dogs in California and New Hampshire, places dogs with veterans and civilians who suffer from PTSD and other psychiatric conditions, such as severe anxiety and depressive disorders.

Rancho Del Sueno, in Madera, California, offers equine-assisted therapy to help with behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, PTSD, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, and more.

What This Means For You

We've all experienced that sense of peace and comfort that comes from petting a cat or hugging a dog, but there could be real benefits to expanding the types of animals we associate with animal therapy. From cows to horses to baby goats, there are multiple species that can help us find joy and calm in the present moment.

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  1. Koukourikos K, Georgopoulou A, Kourkouta L, Tsaloglidou A. Benefits of animal assisted therapy in mental health. Int J Caring Sci. 2019;12(3)1898-1905.