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Discover How The Gentle Barn Is Helping Animals and People Heal with Cow Hug Therapy

Founder Ellie Laks Shares How Animals Can Boost Our Mental Health


Photo: Shutterstock

Anyone who has a pet knows the love and joy they can bring to everyday life. Research shows that pets can help ease anxiety, promote physical activity, and boost overall health and wellness. Understanding the power animals have to lift the spirits of those around them, Ellie Laks, author of My Gentle Barn: Creating a Sanctuary Where Animals Heal and Children Learn to Hope, founded The Gentle Barn after discovering an abusive petting zoo. An animal lover from an early age, she had long dreamed of creating a sanctuary for animals. “Before I knew it, my yard was full of animals needing help, and I realized I had started my dream,” she says.

At The Gentle Barn, which started on a half-acre property in the San Fernando Valley and later moved to a six-acre farm in Santa Clarita, CA, it’s not just animals that find comfort and care. There, people can experience Cow Hug Therapy ($200 donation, 60 minutes), which is exactly what it sounds like. “In the first year of The Gentle Barn, I rescued my very first cow named Buddha, and at the end of long days, I would lean against her, and she would wrap her neck around me and hug me,” says Laks. “It was so healing and transformative, that I knew everyone needed a cow hug! For 23 years, we have been doling out cow hugs to all our guests including those in foster care, on probation, recovering from addiction, surviving domestic violence, living in the inner city, or with special needs who were enrolled in our recovery programs.”

More recently, cow hugs have become even more essential. “During the pandemic, all of us were affected, feeling isolated, depressed, anxious, and in need of hope,” she says. “We made hour-long cow hug therapy sessions for anyone and everyone needing a really good hug.” The farm, which also has locations in Nashville, TN, and St. Louis, MO, is home to more than 170 rescued animals, including horses, pigs, emus, sheep, llamas, goats, turkey, chickens, and more.

According to Laks, what makes the therapy so effective is the fact that animals offer us unconditional love. They’re also nonjudgement and encourage us to be the best versions of ourselves. “Interactions with animals lower our heart rate; release oxytocin; help us become grounded and centered; make us feel strengthened and hopeful; and encourage empathy,” says Laks. “I believe all animals have healing to give us and lessons to teach us, but cows, especially, allow us to feel humble, vulnerable, small, and begin healing.”

The response to Cow Hug Therapy has been overwhelmingly positive. Says Laks, “Depending on what they are going through and what they came looking for, we have had guests burst into tears, open up and connect, laugh out loud, become silent and meditative, or lay on the ground with the cows wrapped in an embrace for an entire hour. But they all leave bright, smiling, relaxed, and more hopeful.”  

About The Author

Heather, co-founder of Well Defined and the former editor-in-chief of American Spa, is an award-winning journalist and content strategist, skilled in writing, copyediting, and media relations. She is also a freelance writer and has contributed to Elite Traveler, Islands, Kiwi, Luxury Travel Advisor, Organic Spa, Porthole Cruise, Travel Agent,,,, and, in addition to various custom publications. She is frequently called upon to comment on various spa and wellness trends for various media outlets.