The Pet Effect
Dogs, cats or horses as therapists? Can animals heal or significantly support the healing of mental illnesses? There are numerous reports and studies that suggest that. It’s commonly known as the “pet effect”. Particularly in the case of depression, pets could be helpful and loving companions.
In memory of “Dare” 2007–2019. I adopted a kitten as advised by a medic. It was the beginning of 12 years of learning and adapting.
Healing Through Animals
In my then-anxiety and panic disorder, I experienced the “pet effect” with a cat. This article is based on the latest considerations and studies and is, therefore, no coincidence.
Animals are not only assigned qualities like being good listeners. For many pet owners, they are best friends and genuine family members who are no less important than humans. The impact of animals on people with mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression has recently become the focus of research and science.
Studies have confirmed the beneficial effects of animals on the human psyche. Scientists have compared the impact of dog-assisted therapy for depressive patients to regular therapy sessions. The research showed that therapy dogs significantly reduced the risk of suicide.
Like several other US universities, the University of British Columbia tackled this topic. Immediately after the first therapy session with dogs, students reported reduced stress, more energy, and an increased sense of happiness. Even after several hours of therapy, these effects persisted.
I got a small cat, which was just four weeks old, and as it turned out, she got sick when I was in the middle of my anxiety disorder with panic attacks.
Not only did the little one help me out of my sabotaging thoughts of the next fear, but she also needed me and, at the same time, gave me endless love. Besides, she forced me to go out when I had to go to the vet with her.
Hence, animals have other positive effects on the human psyche.
Animals and Their Effect on Fear and the Psyche
Still, researchers have not thoroughly clarified all the direct effects of animals on our mental health, but for many of us, we don’t need any studies.
Anyone who is afraid and finds it difficult to open up to people will probably succeed with an animal. Even light touches can be a long-lasting experience, reducing tensions in the body, reducing stress hormones, and boosting the release of the happiness hormone serotonin.
The relationship between the animal and you is beneficial for recovering your confidence in your body and mind, in love and the world, in people and you. After all, the care that an animal demands from you can significantly strengthen your self-efficacy.
Also, an animal doesn’t judge. It knows no rumours, no human standards to which we submit too often. It expects neither perfection nor a flawless curriculum vitae, no great looks or long conversations, no brilliant achievements, etc.
After the first confidence is built up, animals allow unbiased physical contact. Especially patients with anxiety disorders can benefit from this freedom of prejudice.
Besides, an animal lives in the here and now and gently forces us to do the same. In doing so, we practice mindfulness that can distract us from fears of the future and the shadow of the past.
But it is not only in fear that an animal can have a salutary effect. Often, people who suffer from depression withdraw significantly from their social environment. The uncomplicated, unbiased contact with the animals, which show unconditional affection, can be the first step to get closer to humans again.
Last but not least, a pet evicts loneliness because it is always there. But, errands or vet visits also provide an opportunity to leave your own four walls and get in touch with people.
That's How Beneficial A Pet Can Be
Providing for your dog or cat can be a healing experience. On the one hand, there is the feeling of being needed and assuming responsibility. Feeding the cat or walking the dog becomes routine. That brings valuable structure and impulses into everyday life, which can provide stability and implement new security.
Affection also plays a significant role. Strongly human-related animals like dogs actively call for contact. They greet “their” humans with joyfully excited tail-wagging. But also cats need their petting. Anyone who has previously been alone in an apartment gets a loyal companion in a pet.
For dog lovers, walking with your dog will offer many benefits. Anyone who can muster up only a few activities in everyday life must come into action by now.
Walking a dog is even a tried and tested means against social withdrawal in the context of depression or anxiety disorder. Depending on the location and time, you will meet other dog owners, and after several meetings, discussions arise that might lead to new associations or even friendships.
Walks also have a positive effect on overall health at any time of the year. Although (strictly speaking) a dog is not necessary, the animal provides regularity of movement that is good for the body and mind.
Besides, daylight boosts vitamin D production; a lack of vitamin D not only weakens the immune system but also contributes to the development of low moods, anxiety, and depression.
Is a Pet Useful for Your Recovery?
Before acquiring an animal, you need to consider a few points. Because especially with stronger depression or other serious diseases, the question to answer would be,
Is the wellbeing of the pet assured?
The better trained the animal is, the higher the purchase price. That’s usually in the five-digit range for a therapy dog. However, these therapy dogs received training primarily for animal-assisted therapy in institutions.
A private pet, however, is to be had for much less money but should be proven to be healthy and strong-minded and have already enjoyed an excellent primary education.
The checklist below will help you to find out if a pet is suitable for your therapy or if you should specifically search for animal-assisted therapy.
- Is there already experience with pets and the desired animal (cats, dogs, etc.)?
- Is there enough space for an animal?
- Are pets allowed in the apartment or the house?
- Are the financial resources sufficient? In addition to the purchase and costs for food, visits to the veterinarian will occur.
- Can the animal stay long-term and find its place to live here?
- Does the patient or the household members have any animal-related allergies?
- Is it a particularly compatible and human-related animal, preferably with good training?
- Is the patient psychologically and physically stable enough to take care of the animal?
- Which animal suits the personality of the patient?
Is there someone who can look after the animal in an emergency? Also to be considered are holidays and other absences.
If the person’s living conditions or financial situation doesn’t allow for an animal, animal-assisted therapy is another option. Many institutions have already integrated animal-based therapy as an integral part of their offerings.
Trained therapy dogs are used, for example, not only in facilities for children and adolescents but also in retirement homes.
In addition to the physical contact through cuddling, therapy work also includes communicating with the animal exclusively via body language without any further commands.
As a result, patients learn a lot about their physical effect because even small variations can influence the therapy animal. Above all, the animals are able to overcome their fears when the affected have faced their own and, thus, show more self-confidence towards the animal.
Depending on therapy needs, certain species are particularly suitable.
Healing Through Animals
Cats are the animal of choice in nursing homes and for patients with dementia. They are relatively quiet and have their rhythm, which matches the often reduced mobility of the residents. They also lower their companion’s blood pressure with their purring.
Livelier animals such as dogs or horses challenge the patient on their own and lure him out of the reserve. Therefore, they are the ideal companion for depression.
Horses inspire absolute respect due to their size. Once we cut this barrier, confidence in one’s abilities increases. They are good-natured and docile giants, sometimes paired with some stubbornness.
Dealing with them requires conscious handling of voice and body language. Horses have a keen sense of insecurity and can mirror their counterparts and thereby provide immediate feedback.
Dogs create a balance of high activity and sensitivity to anxious patients. Among the preferred breeds as a therapy dog is the Australian Working Kelpie. This sensitive breed is considered to be extraordinarily compatible and very human-related, the ideal combination for a therapy dog.
Sit, Stay, Heal
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2020 Danyel