My son Dan suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder so severe he could not even eat, and his anxiety levels were often so high, he could barely function. It would have been ludicrous for me to suggest he try yoga, or meditation, or any other stress reduction technique to help him feel better when, in fact, he could hardly get off the couch.
But he could pet our cats.
Our beautiful cats, Smokey and Ricky, both so lovable with distinct personalities, helped Dan immensely during those dark days. Whether they sat on his lap, curled up near him on the couch, or let him hold them, they allowed him to relax and brought him momentary peace. Sometimes they purred so loudly they sounded like engines revving, and this soothed Dan. Other times they would engage in various cat-like antics, inciting a rare, but oh-so-cherished laugh from our son.
They didn’t bombard him with questions, asking if he was okay, or if he was hungry, or what was wrong. They were just there with Dan, and for a short time, his focus was diverted from his obsessions and compulsions. Our pets were able to care for Dan in a way the rest of our family could not.
An article in the April 15, 2013 issue of Time magazine explored how animals grieve. I found it fascinating, and no matter how you might interpret the various studies discussed in the article, I think it is hard to argue with the belief that animals do indeed form relationships, and are empathetic. What more does it take to comfort someone?
For those obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) sufferers who struggle with germs and contamination issues, caring for a pet can elicit many triggers. Cleaning a litter box, letting a dog lick your face, or having to tend to a sick pet are just a few examples of what OCD sufferers might have to deal with. Surprisingly, I have heard from many with OCD who are amazed themselves that these situations do not cause their OCD to spring into action. Could it be that their love for their pets transcends the fear and anxiety of OCD?
When my son moved into his own apartment last year, one of the first things he did was foster a cat from a shelter. He has always been an animal lover, and was looking for a furry friend to keep him company. As he knows, life is full of surprises, and come to find out, his new companion has a host of medical problems and needs to take medication to control her seizures.
Instead of returning the cat to the animal shelter (something I very well might have done), he has embraced his role as her caretaker. Whether we have OCD or not, I believe this experience of putting another’s needs ahead of our own is worthwhile. Focusing outward instead of inward gives us a different perspective on our own lives and challenges.
So it works both ways. We take care of our beloved pets, and they take care of us. Whether our furry friend is a specially trained service dog who can sense an imminent anxiety attack (yes, it’s possible!) or an adored rabbit, pets can benefit us all in countless ways. They require us to slow down our lives, they make us laugh, and they give us unconditional love. And for those who are suffering, they provide the much-needed comfort and serenity that often can’t be found elsewhere.