The first time I saw a woman cry, overwhelmed with emotion while holding my dachshund during a depression support group, the power of the human-animal bond really clicked for me.
I remember this quiet woman looking up, tears on her face, softly telling the group, "If I had a dog like this to take care of every day, I’d have a reason to get up in the morning." She buried her face in his fur, soothed as he sat calmly on her lap.
I know not everyone is an animal lover. If animals are not your thing, I understand – although even just watching silly animal videos can be entertaining, a distraction, and bring a smile to your face. But pets can play a powerful role in our lives.
Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms. –George Elliot
For those of you who do like animals, what’s your animal of choice? Guinea pig? Golden Retriever? Pet snake? Gecko? Tabby cat? Tank of tropical fish?
Just the act of petting an animal can be calming and relaxing, the repetitive motion soothing. Through these interactions, you have a positive impact on another creature, which just feels good.
Imagine a cat arching its back in response to your hand running down their back and purring. Or a dog closing his eyes and wagging his tail in rapture as you scratch his neck. Their responses to us are genuine, which sometimes we find lacking in our human interactions in the world. Animals can give us clear, unabashed rewards through their responses to us.
Petting can be beneficial for individuals who have trouble staying in the moment. One of the simplest ways to ground yourself and focus on the present is by experiencing the world through your five senses - the wet nose of a dog poking your arm; stroke the soft fur of a longhaired cat while he purrs; or touch the rough scales of a lizard. Yes, even lizards - I had a pet iguana for many years and when you pet him, he pushed against your hand, clearly enjoying the interaction.
As the woman from the depression support group pointed out, caretaking for a pet can provide a sense of meaning and responsibility. I’ve met people who share about how they used to stay home because they were so depressed and isolated but now go out in order to take their dog outside. Even though they struggle to leave the house, they find the motivation to push past it for the sake of the pet they love and have committed to care for.
Walking a dog provides a push to get out and exercise, healthy for both you and your pet. Caretaking an animal, such as having set feeding and walking times, provides routine and structure to your day, which is helpful when you are struggling with difficult emotions or chaos in your life.
The difference between friends and pets is that friends we allow into our company, pets we allow into our solitude. -Robert Brault
The companionship pets provide may be what brings the most joy to our lives – delight when we walk in the door, give them attention, or just hang out on the couch watching TV with another warm body.
Animals are often forgiving and loyal. They can be a caring support when we need it and seem to know when we’re feeling sad. We talk to them. We play with them. They trust us to make sure they are fed, watered, clean, and walked.
When we’re out and about walking the dog, we meet other people and feel more connected with our neighborhood and community.
You’re out for a walk and pass another person on the sidewalk. You may say hi or smile and just keep walking. But now picture yourself out for a walk with your yellow lab and run into another dog owner and his big, brown poodle. What happens now? You probably stop to chat about your dogs while the two pooches sniff each other. For someone who is struggling or is isolated, this interaction can be very meaningful.
Going to the dog park or bringing your cat to a training class to learn about volunteering at a nursing home provides connection to the community as well – not to mention enjoyment and a helping hand to another person who may be in need of a friend.
Some animals are formally trained as service dogs (and even service miniature horses and monkeys!), such as for individuals who are blind or those with physical disabilities. There are therapeutic animals, such as to help occupational therapists or teachers working with children with Asperger’s who struggle to interact with other people. And your pet cat, dog, bird, fish, lizard can also provide valuable therapeutic benefits, even without extensive training. Just their presence can be healing.
For a number of years I took one of my dogs to a nursing and rehab facility. My dog and I got to know many of the residents, often “bringing the outside life in,” as the activities director once described it to me of individuals who rarely or never leave their rooms. The looks of peace and simple pleasure that on the patients’ faces when I placed my dog on their bed was wonderful and rewarding every time, even if we were just able to stay with them for a few minutes. One bed-bound woman we knew for over a year did not speak English but we managed to communicate via smiles and interactions with my dog. These visits would brighten her day and give her something to look forward to.
How have animals impacted your life? Have you ever had your pet seem to just know when you’re feeling down or felt calmer just being together?
Various research and studies have demonstrated the benefits of animals and pets on health, including mental health; below are some links to more information. But if you’ve spent time with a furried, feathered, or finned friend before, you already know from experience!
Human-Animal Bond Resource Center
Pet Therapy: How Animals And Humans Heal Each Other
The Truth About Cats and Dogs: Pets Are Good for Mental Health of ‘Everyday People’
Rise in Pets as Therapy for Mental Conditions
Please note that the Toolbox articles are meant to be informative and are not a replacement for therapy.
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