Pets and depression
The positive effects of having a beloved pet
Archaeologists have found pet remains with mummies going back as far as the ancient Egyptians. The human-animal bond can come in many forms, from cuddly kittens to lizards or birds. Many humans love to care for and spend time with animals and over time a true bond can develop. Science has shown that a bond with an animal can be like a bond with a child.
Researchers have actually shown positive neurological changes when a pet owner sees their pet.
There are measurable changes in feel-good neurotransmitters that we benefit from when we love a pet. Pets can also positively affect things like blood pressure. These positive effects can be far reaching, especially in a person that is suffering from anxiety or depression.
You probably already know how much I love cats. I was never able to have a pet growing up because of allergies. As I got older, I outgrew my allergies and was finally able to get two kittens. Those two furballs changed my life. As I battled depression for years, they were always by my side. I moved with them to Vancouver for university and back home when my studies were finished.
“Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea.”
- Robert A. Heinlein
They were often the only thought I had when my depression pulled me under again. I was very fortunate in that they lived very long lives. I helped my second cat cross over the rainbow bridge in 2017, after nearly 18 years together. And even though it was the hardest thing I ever had to do, I would not change a minute of time spent together.
Pet facilitated therapy and companion animals
Because the effects of some pets can be so positive on people, pet-facilitated therapy can actually be a viable option for individuals with mental health problems. Whether it be a weekly visit with a calm horse, or a companion dog that never leaves your side. Using animals in therapy can be a helpful treatment in many mental health conditions.
Unknowingly, my two kittens turned into therapy cats. When I had a panic attack, their purring would calm me down and make me focus on them. On the days I thought I could not go on, I knew I had to get it together to care for them. Playing and cuddling with them inexplicably made me feel better. I even took my kittens to work in a cat backpack, so I could keep an eye on them and feed them.
Out of this bond grew a special love for all animals. I have fostered birds, lizards, toads, snakes, mice, hamsters, and dogs. But cats have always been my favorite. Over the years, I added several more rescue cats to the family and as they thrived, so did I. My latest rescue cat even moved to France with us. Little did I realize at the time that I was actually using my cats as therapy animals 🙂
Why is a pet helpful to our mental health?
Unconditional love and positivity from your pet
Unlike humans, animals are non judgmental (except some cats ;). This can be such a welcome break in a society where we are constantly bombarded with ridiculous standards to meet. We are told we need to own the nicest cars, wear the best clothes, eat the best food, and have the best hair and ideal weight.
These expectations can be daunting and cause us a lot of anxiety. Pets, on the other hand, don’t care about what car you drive them in, or what clothes you wear when you play with them in the yard. A loving pet will always show you devotion and love. Regardless of how you look or feel. Their attention and love can be a dependable source of positivity in a stressful and demanding world.
Many individuals struggle with the loss of a loved one and the grief from a loss like that can easily lead to depression. The companionship pets provide can alleviate some of that pain and provide companionship in times of loneliness. Whether they keep your feet warm sleeping on the foot of the bed, or sing you a song when you get out of the shower. The presence of another being can be truly comforting in times of loneliness or grief.
Pets can also provide companionship for an elderly person who finds themselves feeling isolated and alone in their home or a care facility. Having a vigilant presence can put uneasy minds at ease and dissipate loneliness. An indoor dog or cat can provide company when you watch TV and snuggle with you at night.
Distraction, purpose, and routine
Pets require care every day. Even the simple tasks involved in keeping them happy can have a positive effect on your mental health. Feeding, cleaning and playing with your pet can be a welcome distraction to people who get lost in negative thoughts and worry. Having to feed a pet can give you a purpose outside of yourself that motivates you to get out of bed. And these same repetitive tasks can form a daily routine that provides structure in the aimlessness of depression.
Exercising your pet
Some pets can be helpful in motivating you to exercise, as they require daily walking or other outside adventures. If you have an active pet you may feel encouraged to keep up with them and let their energy lead you to a more active lifestyle. Taking a pet on new adventures like hikes or bike rides can be another way to make an activity more exciting or fun. It’s always more fun to share the experience with someone else, and your pet is never busy with work like a friend could be!
If you have a pet that needs to get out of the house sometimes, it can also be a great way to socialize. While more and more of us struggle with various versions of social anxiety, pets can be a great way to socialize in a new community, or start a conversation. Having a pet in common can be the best way to break the ice in any social situation.
Things to consider before getting a pet
While having a pet can be a positive, life changing experience, there are some things that are important to consider. This is especially important if you are struggling with your mental health.
Pets are not temporary, they live with you for a long time. So while the thought of having a fluffy companion can be heartwarming, be sure that you have the time available to dedicate to the relationship. Especially for those of us who still have days where our mental health problems prevent us from getting out of bed, it is important to be realistic about whether or not you will be able to provide consistent care for them.
If you’re worried that you may struggle on some days to care for them, see if you can find a friend or family member who is willing to split the time with you, or jump in when needed. Let your support network know that you would like to get a pet and make sure they can help out.
Personally, my pets became the reason to get out of bed every day.
But, your situation might be very different and you don’t want your pet to suffer the consequences.
If you find that having a clean, organized environment is helpful to your mental health, then you may only want to consider specific caged animals. Pets, especially young ones, can wreak havoc on your space. From peeing on furniture to chewing through electrical cables. Being ready for that kind of disruption in your safe space is important when you bring home a new pet.
Life will be a little more chaotic, but can also be more fun. It was definitely a challenge to train my new kittens. And a lot of things got broken in the process. But I had done my research before and was ready for that. Especially if you get a puppy, you need to be aware of their energy and what that will mean for your home.
If financial worry is already a stressor for you, or causes you anxiety, then it may not be the right time to get a pet yet. Owning an animal can be expensive, and unexpected vet bills can leave people in financial anguish. If you are considering getting a pet, be sure to have some savings put aside for those surprise visits to the vet.
Also keep in mind that some pets are more expensive than others. So, starting with a fish might be a better idea than a horse when money is tight. Your pets will need food, litter, and toys. They will also need a bed and possibly a scratch tree. That’s not including routine vet care, grooming, and dental cleaning.
Although you cannot put a price on a beloved pet’s health, be realistic and wait to get a pet until you can financially support it.
The passing of a pet
This was an extremely difficult thing for me. I love my cats so much that when the first one passed away, I was devastated. A few years later, I had to help my second cat cross the rainbow bridge and it was not any easier. Although you might not want to talk about this, you need to consider before getting a pet that she or he will have a much shorter lifespan than you.
At some point, you will have to deal with your beloved pet passing away. This has the potential to disrupt your coping mechanisms and your mental health routine. You could slip into a deep depression again. So, before getting a pet, think about this and make a plan for how you will cope during this time. Make sure you have family, friends, or a therapist to lean on.
During my depression, my cats were always the light at the end of the tunnel. Although I was not sure I could care for another being, I got things sorted with my family and friends. For me, not a day went by where I did not care for my pets. They became my reason for getting up and eventually for getting better. I know a lot of depressed people who found healing through their pets.
Pets have the uncanny ability to help you just when you need it the most.
They love you unconditionally and give you a reason to get up and get out. If your living situation allows for a pet and you can see yourself taking care of one, go for it. You might find a pet is just what you need for your own healing journey.
Be responsible though and realistically consider your options. Don’t just run out and buy a pet and then decide after a month that you cannot care for it. If you are unsure, maybe help a friend or a family member take care of their pet first. Check with your landlord, if you are renting, to ensure you can even have a pet. And think about your financial situation as well.
But, if you are ready, dive into the unconditional love a pet can give you!