Some years ago, I walked into a sunlit, colorful living room in the coastal town of Laguna Nigel, California. The homeowner, a woman named Carol, was in her early 40’s and had shoulder-length, sandy-colored hair that was pulled back into a ponytail.
I first met Carol a couple of weeks earlier when she watched me give a hands-on session to her neighbor’s paralyzed cat. The unexpected result of that session—frankly, even I was surprised at what happened—motivated Carol to ask for a session for her own cat.
So here we were.
Carol introduced me to PJ, her sweet tabby who had been diagnosed with asthma about nine months before. Despite veterinary treatment, PJ’s breathing was still shallow and labored.
Not surprisingly, the cat’s behavior had also changed.
No longer friendly and out-going, PJ had been spending a lot more time lying under the furniture. He had stopped playing too. It was easy to see why Carol was concerned about her cat.
A tabby similar to PJ
I was able to coax PJ to come onto the carpet as I sat nearby.
As I waited patiently, PJ eventually laid on her side, and I paid close attention to how the tabby was breathing. A few moments later, I put my right hand ever so lightly on the cat’s rib cage. Trying to be unobtrusive, I hardly touched PJ at first. But as I sensed the cat was becoming more comfortable, I let my hand have a fuller contact.
Even then, I didn’t try to influence the cat’s breathing. I simply listened with my hand. This is an important distinction, since dogs and cats know the difference between a listening contact and a corrective contact. I was simply listening.
As I felt the gentle rise and fall of the cat’s rib cage, my own breathing became deeper and fuller.
Comforted by my non-threatening contact, PJ relaxed even more. While I was happy that the cat was relaxed, my work wasn’t done. I had a bigger intention for our session.
I wanted PJ to realize that she could experience life differently. I wanted her to get unstuck.
Let me say that again. I wanted the cat to experience life differently. To get unstuck from her current situation. That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? One way to experience life differently—to change how you feel— is to breathe in a different way.
We know that fuller, easier breathing has many physiological and emotional benefits. It can reduce stress hormones, expedite the removal of toxins from the body, improve blood flow and increase feelings of calm.
This simple breathing exercise helps dogs too!
I helped the cat breathe more deeply by lightening my contact with her rib cage.
Gradually, I started to reduce my hand’s contact with her side. This must be done very, very slowly to have any useful effect.
When your contact is lightened gradually, it can stimulate the cat or dog to expand their rib cage so that they maintain the pleasant feeling of contact with your hand. To keep the contact, the animal takes deeper breaths.
I’ve done this with animals of all sizes and shapes, including very large horses! It’s amazing how well this can work. The secret is reducing your contact very gradually. You must be patient. If you simply take your hand away, it won’t have the desired effect.
After some time, I was able to remove my hand completely and PJ continued to breathe deeply. Carol was near tears. She had not seen her cat this relaxed and peaceful in more than nine months.
Then something unexpected happened.
PJ got up and jumped up onto the windowsill. The window was open and the invigorating ocean breeze wafted through the screen. PJ took several deep breaths. It seemed like she wanted to take the ocean air fully into her.
By this time Carol was crying. Her cat had not jumped onto the windowsill since before her asthma was diagnosed. And then Carol mentioned something else. PJ’s feline housemate had died shortly before the asthma started.
Both Carol and PJ had been grieving the loss of this cat, each in their own ways. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the lungs are considered the seat of grief, so it wasn’t surprising that PJ’s breathing could be affected by the loss of her feline brother.
We experience life differently when we breathe differently.
Changing our breathing can help us shift out of our habitual actions and into healthier, more pleasurable ways of moving and relating to the world.
The tabby was a great example of this. Something shifted in PJ that day and she began enjoying a healthier, more connected life.*
But the story doesn’t end there. After witnessing the effectiveness of this simple breathing exercise, Carol started doing it with her cat every few days. She realized immediately that it was also a powerful way to bond even more deeply with PJ.
And since both human and pet can improve their breathing when they do it, Carol and her cat enjoyed the physical and emotional benefits.
It can also help you create an even deeper connection with your dog or cat.
Carol and PJ were now connected to each other through happy, shared memories as well as the promise of new beginnings. No longer clouded by the habit of feeling sad and stuck, they could now experience life through a fresh, clear lens.
And their bond was that much stronger.
What does this have to do with quarantining with a dog or cat?
The “stay at home” restrictions give us a wonderful opportunity to move our lives in new, positive directions. With job commutes gone, many of us have more time to learn new things.
Now is the perfect time to give yourself the gift of connecting with your pet through breathing together. As you tune into your pet’s breathing, you’ll probably find that your own breathing gets easier too.
This mindful exercise can ground you in the present moment and reduce your stress and anxiety.
I call this exercise Connected Breathing because it can help you create an even deeper connection with your dog or cat.
Connected Breathing is like hitting the reset button. It’s an opportunity to clear your mind of distractions. As your hands lightly rest on your animal’s rib cage, focus on how grateful you are for your pet. Make sure to sense their love for you too.
Feeling gratitude puts you in a receiving state. It generates positive feelings that can provide physical and emotional benefits. This helps both you and your pet.
In this receiving state, you’re primed to accept the feelings of love, connection and optimism that Connected Breathing can create.
As you breathe in these positive feelings, your experience of life may change. You’ll see things through a new lens. With a fresh perspective. You’ll get unstuck from your habitual ways of responding to events.
The more you take the time to slow down and focus on gratitude with your pet, the more plentiful the feelings of love, optimism and connection will become in your life.
After all, what you focus on expands.
Connected Breathing gives you a tool to get unstuck. To shift your thinking. To hit the reset button for you and your pet.
It’s a chance to feed your soul the good stuff.
Do it for your dog or cat. And do it for you too.
In a nutshell, Connected Breathing is a great way to forge a stronger, healthier bond with your animal friend. And we can all benefit from that!
*As I suggested, Carol continued to follow her veterinarian’s advice regarding PJ’s asthma treatment. The information in this article is for general education purposes only and should never replace medical advice.
Would you like FREE videos to help you improve your dog’s mobility and vitality at any age? You can get Mary’s free canine video masterclass here.
Mary Debono, GCFP is a Certified Feldenkrais® Practitioner and the creator of Debono Moves. She is the author of the award-winning, Amazon #1 bestseller, Grow Young with Your Dog and the video program, “Age-Proofing Your Dog: A Feldenkrais Approach to Lifelong Health and Vitality.”
Over a career spanning almost 30 years, Mary has helped thousands of individuals, ranging from disabled dogs to world-class equine and human athletes. And she can teach you to enhance your dog’s health and vitality too!