The day I returned from inpatient therapy, my Lab-Chow mix cuddled up to me on the bed as I cried. She looked into my defeated gaze and licked my tears.
I was astounded that this creature was capable of the empathy that I so craved in my closest friends and relatives. It was like she could read the pathetic and sad thoughts that disabled me and wanted me to know I was lovable in the midst of my suffering.
She continues to be a supportive presence in my life, especially on the days that I grow weary of trying on — and throwing out — every mindful exercise and cognitive behavioral strategy… the hours where staying positive seems impossible. She gets it. I know she does.
Every week I hear tales of four-legged creatures becoming angels in times of terrifying darkness. Indeed, a substantial body of research indicates that pets improve our mental health.
How? Here are a few ways.
1. Pets offer a soothing presence.
Studies indicate that merely watching fish lowers blood pressure and muscle tension in people about to undergo oral surgery. That’s why all the aquariums in dentists’ offices! Think of the behavior Darla in Disney Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” would have exhibited without the fish tank.
Other research shows that pet owners have significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate both before and while performing stressful mental tasks — like, say, performing a family intervention or supervising kids’ homework. Finally, persons recovering from heart attacks recover more quickly and survive longer when there is a pet at home. It seems as though their mere presence is beneficial.
2. Pets offer unconditional love and acceptance.
As far as we know, pets are without opinions, critiques, and verdicts. Even if you smell like their poop, they will snuggle up next to you. In a Johns Hopkins Depression & Anxiety Bulletin, Karen Swartz, M.D. mentions a recent study where nursing home residents in St. Louis felt less lonely with some quiet time with a dog alone than a visit with both a dog and other residents.
The study enrolled 37 nursing home residents who scored high on a loneliness scale and who were interested in receiving weekly half-hour visits from dogs. Half of the residents had quiet time alone with the pooches. The other half shared the dog with other nursing home residents. Both groups said they felt less lonely after the visit, but the decrease in loneliness was much more significant among the residents that had the dogs all to themselves. In other words, at times we prefer our four-legged friends to our mouthy pals because we can divulge our innermost thoughts and not be judged.
3. Pets alter our behavior.
Here’s a typical scenario. I come through the door in the evening and I’m annoyed. At what, I don’t know. A million little snafus that happened throughout the day. I am dangerously close to taking it out on someone. However, before I can do that, my Lab-Chow walks up to me and pats me, wanting some attention. So I kneel down and pet her. She licks my face, and I smile. Voila! She altered my behavior. I am only agitated a little now and chances are much better that someone will not become a casualty of my frustrations. We calm down when we are with our dogs, cats, lizards, and pigs. We slow our breath, our speech, our minds. We don’t hit as many people or use as many four-lettered words.
4. Pets distract.
Pets are like riveting movies and books. They take us out of our heads and into another reality – one that only involves food, water, affection, and maybe an animal butt – for as long as we can allow. I’ve found distraction to be the only effective therapy when you’ve hit a point where there is no getting your head back. It’s tough to ruminate about how awful you feel and will feel forever when your dog is breathing in your face.
5. Pets promote touch.
The healing power of touch is undisputed. Research indicates a 45-minute massage can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol and optimize your immune system by building white blood cells. Hugging floods our bodies with oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress, and lowers blood pressure and heart rates. And, according to a University of Virginia study, holding hands can reduce the stress-related activity in the hypothalamus region of the brain, part of our emotional center. The touch can actually stop certain regions of the brain from responding to threat clues. It’s not surprising, then, that stroking a dog or cat can lower blood pressure and heart rate and boost levels of serotonin and dopamine.
6. Pets make us responsible.
With pets come great responsibility, and responsibility — according to depression research — promotes mental health. Positive psychologists assert that we build our self-esteem by taking ownership of a task, by applying our skills to a job. When we succeed — i.e., the pet is still alive the next day — we reinforce to ourselves that we are capable of caring for another creature as well as ourselves. That’s why chores are so important in teaching adolescents self-mastery and independence.
Taking care of a pet also brings structure to our day. Sleeping until noon is no longer a possibility unless you want to spend an hour cleaning up the next day. Staying out all night needs some preparation and forethought.