Good Karma & Good Company: How Pets Can Improve Mental Health

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Anyone who has experienced depression or anxiety (or for those of us who are really lucky, both) is familiar with a paralyzing pain. While antidepressants offer diverse levels of relief, protective lifestyle modifications may also help reduce the intensity of recurrent depressive symptoms (rainy season, anyone?!).

I can personally attest to the mental health benefits of owning a pet (a cat, specifically). While I don’t want to encourage anyone to run out and get a pet on a whim, consider these benefits:

1. Behavioural Activation
In the world of psychology, behavioural activation essentially means “doing it even when you really don’t want to.” When we get depressed, we lose our motivation to be active (whether that means running a marathon or opening the cupboard to find dinner).  There’s been debate over the nature of the relationship between depression and this sedentary state (are we not leaving our bed because we are depressed, or are we depressed because we aren’t leaving our bed?).  Research continues to show that behavioural activation can improve depressive symptoms.  For example, just the thought of having to go out with friends and pretend to be cheerful is enough to make us cancel and opt for a night with Netflix. However, when we force ourselves to do something that’s inconsistent with our depression, symptoms can actually improve.

When you have a pet, you’re faced with an individual who is going to remind you to empty the litter box, change the food and water, or take them outdoors. These minor activities keep us going and according to the theory described above, may actually help us get back on track faster.

2. Unconditional Positive Regard
If Carl Rogers (one of the founding fathers of the humanistic approach to psychology) were alive, I guarantee you he would be gung-ho about the idea of pets as little therapists.  Unconditional positive regard (essentially thinking you’re awesome no matter what) was one of Rogers’ central components to successful therapy. Pets are the best at this and they don’t even get paid to do it (unless you count kibble).  Researchers at Miami University in Ohio have even found that pet owners have higher self-esteem (see Friends with Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership (McConnell & Brown, 2011)).

3. Comfort & Distraction
Going through depression alone is difficult – and unfortunately the norm for graduate school students who may relocate across the country (or even the globe) for school.  The presence of an animal companion has been shown to lower blood pressure and muscle tension (not to mention that the soothing purr of a cat will help you fall asleep at night). Many pets (usually dogs – sorry, cat lovers) actually make an effort to comfort you when you’re upset and crying.

Similarly, animals can be so in-tune with your behaviour that some service dogs have been trained to physically intervene (by getting on your lap and in your face) when PTSD sufferers become overwhelmed (the dogs are trained to respond to certain postural cues, etc.). The function of this is to distract. When an individual becomes paralyzed with emotional pain, they are forced to deal with the adorable face that’s nudging their chin and demanding their attention. The dogs will not relent until the person makes eye contact and begins engaging.  In extreme cases, this break in focus can be life-saving.

4. Karma
If you’re thinking a pet might be a good idea for you (remember to select a pet whose needs are consistent with your availability – don’t get a puppy when you’re in class from 9-5), consider adopting from your local shelter.  There are so many amazing companions just waiting to come home with you (and your apartment will be like the Ritz Hotel compared to the cage they’ve been living in!). You may quite literally save each other’s lives. Sometimes when you’re unhappy, it’s nice to know that you’ve helped change someone else’s life for the better.

The Vancouver SPCA is located at 1205 E 7th Ave. (604)-681-7271

– H.


FullSizeRender  Buffy – my Nova Scotian rescue kitty who moved with me to Vancouver for graduate school.

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