Guest post by Sheri Leasure, LCSW
Years ago, long before I would have even considered the therapeutic power of pets, my older sister and her husband had a big goofy Golden Retriever named Daisy Jane. I was a living with them at the time, as I was a poor graduate student working part-time at a restaurant trying to save money. I would come home from a long shift smelling of French fries, and before I could fully enter the house, I’d almost be knocked over by Daisy trying lick my face. That enthusiastic welcome was the best part of my day!
Daisy was my study partner at times (when she finally settled down for a nap), my motivation for exercise (we spent many hours walking, fetching, and splashing in the river), and my friend. It was a stressful time in my life, but she always made me feel better.
Why are pets therapeutic for us? They cost money, require a lot of work and attention, and sometimes even destroy our possessions. I had a few socks, a plastic binder, and at least one shoe become casualties of Daisy’s chewing. When we have pets, we also risk the pain of losing them. I still remember how sad I was when Daisy died.
But despite the cons of having pets, most pet parents believe that the benefits of owning pets far exceed any inconvenience.
Why Are Pets Therapeutic?
- Pets provide a sense of connection without judgment, which is something human beings are wired for and long for powerfully. Daisy didn’t care about my financial situation. She didn’t mind if I was in a bad mood. She didn’t engage in debate over my life choices. She was just there – dependably, warmly, comfortingly present without fail. She’d let me hug her for as long as I needed when I was sad or stressed. She was never too busy or in a hurry. She was never insistent on helping me figure out what I needed to do differently in my life. My being sad was OK with her. I was always OK with her…especially if I had treats for her! Pets accept us without question. We can be ourselves around them without fear or shame.
- Caring for a pet has proven physical benefits. Several studies have shown that pet owners have reduced levels of cortisol, lower blood pressure and improved cardiovascular health. Daisy’s imploring eyes would convince me, at times, to leave my studies and take her for a walk. She was hard to resist! Deep touch pressure also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that slows the fight or flight response and lets the body know it is safe. Weighted blankets work on this principle and many service dogs are trained to assist their handlers by leaning into them or lying on top of them. Holding a dog in your lap or letting a cat rest on your chest can be very calming – for both of you.
- Pets protect us from despair. Therapists consider having a pet a protective factor, something that reduces a person’s risk of suicide. This is one of many benefits of pets for mental health. Pets are therapeutic because the comfort we receive from pets and our sense of responsibility toward them can give us a reason to keep going when everything else seems hopeless.
- Pets teach us to love – and grieve. Pets quickly become part of the family. We often get attached to creatures who are dependent on us for care. Plus, they are cute – sometimes ridiculously cute! For some people who have suffered at the hands of other humans, pets offer a safe attachment that can help them heal. It took about three seconds for me to fall in love with Daisy when I met her as a puppy. The love was instant, mutual, and profound. Just how profound became clear to me when we lost her at age 12. Loss is a part of everyone’s life at some point. Learning to manage losing someone or something we love is a skill no one wants but everyone needs. Pets provide us with this experience simply because their lifespans are generally much shorter, and we usually outlive them. We must mourn, accept the loss, and hold on to the good memories. When we successfully navigate this experience, we learn that we can, indeed, survive it. And the memories and love, at least, we get to keep. It has been years since Daisy died, and now what’s left for me is all the good memories. When I think of her, I smile remembering her splashing in the river and getting mud all over me when she would come in from the rain. She has become a positive resource I draw on in moments of sadness or fear.
- Pets are naturally grounded and mindful. Pets can bring us back into the present moment if we let them. It was very hard to stay stuck in my head worrying about terms papers or ruminating about workplace drama with a 90-pound furball trying to lick my face. This demonstrates how pets are therapeutic because when focused on her, my brain got a break from life’s stresses.
- Pets help us take things less seriously…again, if we let them. It may be annoying to turn around and suddenly have your last slice of pizza missing, but you must admit, it’s also pretty funny! Pets have personalities and quirks and show us the wonder in the ordinary. To a Golden, everyday objects are toys, a walk along a river is a chance to splash, and even a visit from the mailman is cause for excitement. Daisy’s life was simple and joyful, and mine was, too, when I was with her.
The Benefits of Pets for Mental Health
A few of the many ways to really appreciate the benefits of pets for mental health are:
- Put down your phone and play. I spend a lot of time in front of a screen too, so I am reminding myself as well. Virtual life and connection have value, but sometimes I need to connect to reality. Pets help me with that. Petting the cat, physically feeling her fur, pulls me back into my body, into reality and back into the present moment. Playing with a pet also reminds me to take breaks, to have fun, to smile. I know life is busy and we have important responsibilities. I also know that I feel better if I make it a point to stop being an adult for 10 minutes, throw a ball and watch a puppy dash back on its gangly legs to bring it—covered in slobber—to drop at my feet.
- Sink into the experience of your pet’s life with mindfulness. Why are pets therapeutic? Walk the dog and notice what the dog notices. What is it about that spot that smells so interesting? Pet the cat. Listen to the sound of her purring and feel the vibration of it as you hold her in your lap. Feed the rabbit a carrot and watch his cute little face as he chews. Marvel at the color of your fish, how its scales reflect the light. Soak in their cuteness, feel the warmth of their fur. You have them for a limited time. Enjoy and savor their presence.
- Laugh at their antics. When you find a perfect, muddy paw print on the paper that is due in 6 hours, it’s OK to be a little upset. It’s also OK, once you’ve reprinted it and the crisis is past, to laugh out loud and share the story with your friends. Pets do all sorts of things that we find funny, quirky, ridiculous. Share their adventures and mishaps. People love hearing funny pet stories. Just look at all the pet-related memes!
Let pets help you feel better and enjoy the moment. They do!
Sheri Leasure provides psychotherapy for children, teens, and adults in our Glen Ellyn office. She has training in EMDR, and uses CBT, DBT, and Internal Family Systems in her work. Sheri currently is working towards certification in Somatic Experiencing.