How Animal Rescue Rescued Me

I found meaning, purpose, and pain relief bottle-feeding hundreds of orphan kittens and baby squirrels. It's a commitment of time, energy, and emotion but it brings me joy and makes me feel strong and capable. Here's how helping baby animals helps me thrive. 

The author with three of her rescue kittens. Over the years her love, attention, and endless bottle-feedings have made hundreds of rescue kittens strong enough to be adopted into permanent homes.

For decades I've lived with chronic foot and ankle pain resulting from a botched foot operation. I know all too well the impact intractable pain has on mental health—the despair brought on by job loss. The frustration of being unable to contribute to family expenses. The devastation of living with excruciating pain no one can see (and many don't believe). The disappointment of having to remind loved ones that my pain can be debilitating.

It's easy to feel useless when you are unable to work or be physically active with your child. It takes a toll and sometimes leads to depression.

When battles with my family over opioids (they didn’t understand that the medication gave me some quality of life without addiction) seemed endless, I knew I needed something to keep my mind focused on the positive.

I worked for many years as a conservation photo editor so I decided to explore animal rescue as a hobby—I thought it would be a good way to stay busy while unemployed. After a little digging, I learned about wildlife rehabilitation and while I couldn't predict then the lasting impact animal rescue would have on my life and my chronic pain journey, I'm very glad I got involved.

Making Pain Connections Through Baby Squirrels

Animal rescue isn't just for cats and dogs. Sometimes wild animals including rats, bunnies, pigeons, and squirrels need rescuing and rehab, too. After meeting someone in squirrel rescue I decided to give raising orphan squirrels a shot.  Baby squirrels are sometimes abandoned when their mom becomes prey or when bad storms and hurricanes blow them from the safety of their nests.I was a natural nurturer and raising tiny orphans wouldn't keep me standing on my painful feet.

Working with wild animals requires a wildlife rehabilitator permit that you can obtain through your state's natural resources agency. It involves finding a mentor, completing a minor amount of paperwork, and paying a small fee. It typically takes 2 years to get a full license. (You can learn more at the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.)

With a few baby squirrels under my care at home, I began spending a good deal of time networking on a wildlife rescue forum. Before long, I noticed I had a lot in common with other squirrel rehabbers. Many were on disability and also suffering from various chronic illnesses.

Fellow wildlife rehabilitator Christal Skulborstad, also lives with chronic pain. But her CRPS doesn't prevent her from giving some love to a baby rescue flying squirrel from her home in Texas.

We had all realized that taking care of baby animals—and syringe-feeding baby squirrels in particular—didn’t require much activity but still gave us a way to feel connected to something valuable. We were saving little lives!

I helped to raise almost 100 baby squirrels over a period of a few years and then, at the urging of a friend, I switched to bottle-feeding rescued kittens. At the time, my own chronic pain was getting worse and my mental state deteriorating rapidly.

More and more frustrated with my failed attempts to find support and proper medication, I leaned into kitten rescue. Being a part of a larger rescue community made me feel like I was a functioning part of society again.

Syringe-feeding an orphan squirrel.

Interestingly, I have found that the more stress and pain I suffer, the more I crave interacting with my foster kittens. It’s not just the caregiving that’s beneficial but I also find peace when cuddling with them. I’ve now been raising orphan kittens for almost 10 years and have helped to save hundreds of kittens who are now living happy lives with their adoptive families.

Few Physical Demands, Many Big Rewards

Animal therapy has long been used in palliative and cancer-based care to help patients.1,2 But the benefits of unconditional love from a furry friend are not limited to end-of-life care, nor are they condition specific. In fact, a group of clinicians from the American Academy of Family Physicians reported that nonpharmacological therapies, such as animal-assisted therapy, have become a vital part of chronic pain management plans.3

While these therapies may not replace medications or other interventions, complementary modalities also give individuals more flexibility with their long-term care plans. For me, animal rescue and wildlife rehabilitation provide not just peace but also solace.

Katie Lane with her Eurasian collared dove. She also helps rehab pigeons and small mammals including rats and bunnies.

Being able to do something that is minimally active and not physically demanding is highly rewarding; it provides a sense of purpose and a routine—something often lacking in the lives of those who are unable to work due to their pain. I know, for example, that I have to feed my foster kittens every 3 hours—so on those days when my pain keeps me bed or couch-bound, I am forced to get up and be mobile. Seeing their cute faces and feeling their unconditional love also helps to stave off my depression

Research: Cats Are Prrrrr-ect Pain Partners, Too

Steven Richeimer, MD, a pain management specialist who also serves on PPM’s Editorial Board, says animal companionship is a natural pain reliever. 

Research shows that just 10 minutes of petting a dog reduces the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the body. "Walking a dog forces a pain sufferer to be more active which, in turn, can help with arthritis and weight control," he explains. "I had a patient with CRPS whose dog would actually lick him when it sensed his pain ” 

Cats can also bring pain and stress relief. A cat’s purring actually stimulates healing according to Leslie A. Lyons, PhD, a professor of feline genetics and comparative medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri.

She explained the science in an article published in Orthopedics. “Domestic cats purr at frequencies between 20 and 150 Hertz, frequencies that are associated with the promotion of bone growth and fracture healing, muscle growth and repair, swelling, pain and inflammation relief and even joint mobility improvement. 

Meet Katie and Rachel

Over the years, I have come across many other rehabilitators who have discovered similar benefits through pain management and online support groups. Like me, many work from home and have the ability to do regular baby feedings. What we all have in common is—chronic pain and a love of animals. 

Katie Lane (pictured with one of her rescue birds, above) has fibromyalgia and hypermobility accompanied by frequent painful dislocations and mental health struggles. She rescues small mammals and disabled pigeons from her home in the UK.

“Having the small furries to care for helps me manage my conditions as well as getting great joy from seeing them recover and live happy lives,” she says. “If I can make a pigeon feel safe, I feel better,” she said.

Katie also volunteers at a pigeon rescue site that provides her with a platform for social interactions when home life feels isolating.

Rachel Taylor doesn't let her RA interfere with caring for birds and small mammals. Here she's pictured with a creature native to Australia known as a tawny frogmouth.

Rachel Taylor, of Queensland, Australia, suffers from systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), rheumatoid arthritis, and a few other conditions. She ran a domestic animal rescue until her health forced her to close the business.

Seeking another avenue for helping animals, she too became a wildlife rehabilitator. “The birds are my sanity,” she laughs.

Two More Ways to Add Animals to Your Life

If you'd like add some fur-time to your day but don't feel ready to go all in, you can still reap the rewards of animal-assisted therapy. Here are a few ideas:

#1. Sign Up to Have A Therapy Animal Visit YOU

If you are unable to have a long-term pet in your home due to allergies, rental restrictions, or other challenge, you might be able to arrange for a therapy animal to visit you because guess what?, some dogs make house calls!

At least one study showed that therapy dog visits in an outpatient setting can provide significant reduction in pain and emotional distress for those in chronic pain.6

Many healthy dog owners recognize their dogs’ good nature and friendly dispositions make them ideal candidates for being therapy dogs and bring their dog for house visits to people that suffer illness as a way of contributing to society themselves.

Guinea pigs, miniature horses, and cats are also available for this type of interaction. So if you’re stuck at home suffering in pain, perhaps you can find a neighbor or group with a therapy animal that can come to your house.

Check out Therapy Dogs International, Pet Partners, and Love on a Leash. Or, Google “therapy pet visits near me” to find a local therapy pet visit organization.

#2. Be An Uber for Animals 

It turns out that animals need rides, too. If you are able to lift a pet carrier and enjoy driving, there are opportunities to transport rescue animals. Kimberly Clees lives with fibromyalgia and transports truckloads of cats and dogs from her home in New Mexico, where homeless animals are plentiful to Colorado, where a dense population of animal lovers reside. Says Clees, “Helping the animals find loving homes helps me keep my mind off of myself and my pain and focus on a greater purpose.”

The Best Perk of All 

Perhaps the biggest benefit of animal fostering and rehabilitation is the socializing that comes with the territory. There are numerous forums and private social media groups where volunteers exchange stories and tips. This goes a long way toward lessening feelings of isolation or loneliness.

I found some of my best friends through animal-related support groups including the Squirrel Board and a few national and local Facebook groups formed to support work with orphan kitten bottle-feeders.

So while you might be on a complicated regimen of medications like I am, in addition to trying physical therapy and various alternative treatments, you might want to hop online to see how you might be able to work animal interaction or rescue into your routine to fill your time (in between doctor appointments of course) with something meaningful and joyous.


Updated on: 01/20/21
Continue Reading:
What I Wish My Family Knew about My Chronic Pain