One of my three cats, CJ, has a unique purr. Her purr can be heard across the house, or over the phone by unsuspecting callers, and her sound has been compared to a pigeon or turtle dove. It’s nearly impossible not to smile when she is purring (unless it is 3 a.m., because if she wakes up, she purrs then as well!) My other two kitties like to snuggle–often at inconvenient times, such as when I am trying to type a blog post!–but there is no doubt they love me. They tend to stick especially close when they sense I am unhappy or not feeling well.
One of my colleagues at Duke, Jennifer Strauss, was featured recently about volunteer work she, her husband, and their dog, Murphy, do at a camp for children who have lost a parent, sibling or other significant person in their lives within the past two years. In the article, Jennifer discusses the connections the children make with Murphy, and how his presence seems to allow them to express feelings that may not be so easy to share with adults.
The physical and mental health benefits of having pets are numerous. If you and your partner already have pets, are you getting the most benefit? If you don’t have pets, is it time to consider getting one?
It’s important to note that pets cannot cure mental illness, but they can help alleviate symptoms. However, before you decide to go out and adopt a pet, there are two important things to keep in mind: 1) If your partner is severely debilitated, they will likely not be able to care for or benefit from a pet, and 2) If your partner is not a “pet person,” giving them one is not likely to change their mind. Pets are best for people who are mild to moderately depressed, or are experiencing anxiety.
How can a pet help?
- Pets are nonjudgmental, and love us unconditionally. They depend on us for their care, and make us feel important. Think dog wagging its tail and barking when you come home, even though you’ve only been gone 10 minutes.
- Pets relieve loneliness. Many people with depression feel isolated and alone. Having a pet can take away some of those feelings. If your partner is caring for a dog, having to get out of the house several times a day to walk the dog can increase social contact, as well as provide some exercise, sunshine, and fresh air, all of which are good for mental health.
- Pets take the focus off ourselves. Since pets are dependent on us for their care, having to attend to the needs of a pet can help your partner shift their focus from themselves and their illness. Even if your partner is having trouble attending to their own needs, knowing that a pet is depending on them for care can help to encourage your partner to show that same attention to their own care.
- Stroking an animal is thought to reduce stress levels. Animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy are growing in popularity in mental health facilities and private offices, but you and your partner can benefit at home as well. This article from Psychiatric News talks about how animals assist in patient care.
If you need more convincing, or just more information, fellow Psych Central blogger Alicia Sparks wrote an article about how animals benefit mental health, and has additional resources, including book suggestions and links.