The Lists

the best luxury spas and hotels to offer animal therapy

The first time we heard it, we thought it was a joke: goat therapy. Are you kidding? (Pun fully intended). Then one of our team members spent a jolly afternoon at a local farm watching and playing with adorable little kids and goats, and returned convinced that it was a terrific, low-tech and reasonably accessible way to reduce stress and increase our feelings of well-being. Goat yoga is totally a Thing now, and there are wellness programs featuring equines, chickens, sheep, pot-bellied pigs and a host of other animals.

From a health and wellness perspective, it sounds ideal. But our Style Council had some other pressing questions: is animal therapy something that requires sleeping in a tent, barn or other rustic setting that lacks a roof and/or running water? Or is it possible to experience this phenomenon in high luxury style? Is it going to ruin our manicures? Or is it possible to have both soft sheets at night and a soft furry animal to snuggle with by day?

Dear reader, the answer is an emphatic yes. In this instance, you can have it all.

A growing body of scientific research demonstrates that interactions with therapy animals provides benefits ranging from lower blood pressure and cholesterol to improved self-esteem and a greater sense of purpose. Animal-assisted therapy isn’t new; the use of pets in medical settings for treatment dates back over 150 years. Most recently, it has gained traction as a treatment for addiction and physical and emotional traumas.

Luxury spas have increasingly begun to adopt these practices, adding various elements to their wellness programs to not only help guests relieve everyday stress, but also to help them achieve their personal goals, and even improve their leadership skills.

The most common spa-based animal therapies are canine and equine-related: ranging from puppies to dogs, and from horses and ponies to donkeys, interactions with both species in a guided setting provide measurable benefits in terms of stress reduction and wellness metrics.

Next in line is the goat. Some popular breeds, like the Nigerian dwarf goat, are unexpectedly smart, easily trained, highly sociable, nonviolent, and extremely entertaining. Just watching them play so exuberantly is therapeutic, and programs like goat yoga allow participants to interact with the goats directly in an enclosed field or barnyard.

Therapy chickens are slightly less common, but not unheard of. The main benefit of a therapy chicken is that keeping a chicken requires some time and effort, but is fairly easy, making it an excellent program for those who benefit from having a basic task to complete. They can also be quirky and funny, similar to their four-footed barnyard neighbors, the goats.

Here are 10 luxury destinations where you can find animal-assisted wellness therapy, or at least some unique opportunities to view and interact with living creatures of the forest or sea in a safe, beautiful and serene setting. We’ve ordered them from most to least therapeutic in nature.

1. At the Purple Sage Ranch at the Miraval Spa and Resort in Tucson, award-winning equine experiences help unleash creativity, improve communication, heal fear and trauma and take you on an unforgettable ride.  Here you can learn riding skills, express your creativity and gratitude by using the resort horses as an actual painting canvas, and learn to move horses around the pen without touching or speaking to identify and improve your communication strengths and challenges.

2. Head to Middleburg, Virginia to the Salamander Spa & Resort  to experience a wide variety of equine programs in the EquiSpective program, ranging from yoga and meditation in stables (and even on horseback!) to horseback rides designed to help achieve mind-body wellness.  The goal of the programming is to learn more about communication and leadership style by connecting with horses. The resort doesn’t just limited their guests’ interactions with animals to horses: it also offers course in Falconry, and has a miniature horse named Cupcake onsite as one of its official greeters upon entry to the hotel.

3. Sunrise Springs Integrative Wellness Resort in Santa Fe, New Mexico is a 70-acre resort that combines nature-based activities, Eastern and Western healing modalities, and Native American teachings to help guests find deeper meaning in their lives. This resort emphasizes the mental health benefits of animal interaction by letting guests care for soft and adorable silkie chickens and play with puppies (the resort is a proud partner with Assistance Dogs of the West, where dogs train to become service animals). Guests gain insight into their own and others’ behaviors through observing and interacting with the chickens and puppies, in addition to offering an opportunity to slow down and reflect.

4. Ste. Anne’s Spa in Grafton, Ontario focuses on creating an atmosphere to help rebuild your strength, recapture your energy, and reflect on what’s truly important in your life.  Guests can experience as much or as little as they like of what it would be like to live on a horse farm – from mucking the stables, grooming the horses or helping with the evening turn-in.  In addition to the equine program, the spa resort offers impeccably prepared meals, and spa services and wellness classes such as yoga and meditation.

5. Rancho La Puerta sprawls over an expansive 4,000 acres, with gardens, hiking trails, pools, spa and fitness facilities, and a renowned organic farm that helps supply the property with fresh, seasonal produce. The daily treatment options are endless, and include a leisurely bird-watching meditation exploration with one of the resort’s guides.

6. Sandos Caracol Eco Resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico offers guests the chance to come face-to-face with local animals through their Animal Keepers program. With three vets onsite to lead the program, visitors have the opportunity to feed, bathe and care for endangered and rescued animals including rescued donkeys, endangered white-tailed deer, and macaws. The resort is also home to “Cat Cafés,” where guests can feed and interact with native cats found on the property.

7. At Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, in Nassau, Bahamas, you’ll find a Beach Sanctuary that’s home to nurse sharks, sea turtles and stingrays. Other features include turtle feedings on the beach and interactions with exotic birds at the Flamingo Sanctuary, a swim-up aquarium and aviary.

8. The Hotel Nikko in San Francisco offers a simple but effective type of animal therapy. About 3 years ago the hotel appointed a “Canine Operating Officer” in charge of visiting guests, offering cuddles and dispensing dog kisses.  Upon check-in, guests find a stuffed animal dog and a notecard on their beds. The notecard informs guests that it will be $29 to take the stuffed animal home (purchases benefit a local animal shelter) or that they can dial the operator and book a “meet and greet” with Buster Posey Presutti, the hotel’s certified therapy dog.  Buster meets with guests on the outdoor patio, where they can sit on a couch and cuddle with him, or even play a round of fetch for a quick but effective mood booster.

9. Descendants of roosters that were bred in Cuba and the Keys, Key West’s roosters are among the most distinctive elements of the island. At the Casa Marina Waldorf Astoria resort, where vibrantly-plumed fowl roam freely, you’ll fine Feathers the rooster, a long-time resident. Both employees and returning guests know him by his bright colors and distinctive voice.

10. Don’t have time for a long getaway? Jamieson Ranch Vineyards in Napa Valley, California is launching Mini-Moments: a unique interactive experience with the winery’s family-friendly therapy horses. Guests may interact with the mini horses, followed by a seated signature tasting of five Napa Valley wines.

There you have it: ten ways to get closer to the animal kingdom in ways that will improve your mind, spirit and body while ensuring that the animals themselves are safe and happy, too. Win-win! We’re totally psyched to meet the goats.

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