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Animal therapy provides stress relief across Chapel Hill


Photo courtesy of Paige Collins.

It can be hard to own a pet. You might not have enough space, enough money or roommates who can tolerate dog hair or cat litter.

Luckily, there are several organizations on and off campus that provide students and community members with the opportunity to spend some quality time with creatures great and small.

Just a short drive from UNC’s campus, but far removed from the burdens of classes and the yellow lights of Davis Library, the many farms scattered across Chapel Hill offer an escape from the stresses of daily life for community members. 

“You get down here, and it’s like we’re in our own little world,” Amani Wicker, event coordinator for Spring Haven Farm, said.

Spring Haven Farm offers a variety of programs and events. The entire farm can be accessed with one ticket, which allows you to visit with and pet its many animals, including Highland cows, horses, bunnies, goats and pigs, for as long as the farm is open. 

They also offer Baby Goat Zen, where visitors can spend 50 minutes snuggling some of the newest additions to the farm’s ever-growing herd of goats.

“It’s very therapeutic, it’s calming,” Wicker said. “Animals can sense your energy.”

According to UCLA Health, even just petting animals can promote the release of hormones like serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, all of which can elevate moods. There’s even evidence that animals can benefit physical health, helping to lower blood pressure and control breathing.

ClearWind Farm, another local Chapel Hill site, uses their animals, namely their horses, to practice equine assisted psychotherapy. This practice is not about training to ride horses, rather, their team of equine specialists and therapists uses horse-centered activities to work through issues and feelings typically addressed in traditional therapy sessions. 

“Horses are very good at connecting what’s really going on inside and then bringing it out, externalizing it,” Suzanne Case, owner of ClearWind Farm and licensed mental health counselor, said. 

Case said equine-assisted psychotherapy can be especially effective for those feeling stuck or challenged with traditional therapy.

“What we do with clients is we really try to get them in their body, you know, connect them to the place in their brain that does store trauma,” Case said. “It’s sort of like giving that person a chance to really be there in the presence of a non-judgmental being, another living being, that can really give feedback, but also just be there with them.”

For those who aren’t equipped to make the trip out to ClearWind or Spring Haven, the student organization Paws for a Cause at Carolina hosts events right on UNC’s campus.

The club, which recently changed its name from Carolina Helping Paws, hosts events like Puppy Kissing Booth, Pits in the Pit and Pet Therapy for Finals. The group works with dogs from local rescue and nonprofit organizations, focusing on promoting animal welfare as well as providing students with opportunities to cuddle with pups.

“I know a lot of people don't have the ability to get dogs, being in college — whether it's money or not having a place to have the dog, not having enough time,” Paige Collins, co-president of Paws for a Cause, said. “So we really think it's important to bring that onto campus multiple times throughout the semester, but especially around finals because it's just a stressful time where a lot of people can feel overwhelmed and isolated and stressed out.”

Dogs have been shown to reduce levels of stress hormones and ease feelings of loneliness, according to the National Institutes of Health

“I've just noticed that even being there, you can just feel a total shift in people's mood, like the second you say, ‘Oh, you want to pet the dog?’ it's like a flip of a switch, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, yeah!’” Collins said

The club hosts events regularly and will host Dogs and Donuts in the Pit on Valentine's Day. Spring Haven is hosting Valentines with Goats, where attendees can bring a valentine to one of the farm's animals until Feb. 18.


@dthlifestyle |

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