Ten Ways Pets Can Improve Your Family’s Mental HealthJuly 20, 2010 • By Linda Chassman, PhD, LMFT
Mazey was three months old when I got her from the Humane Society. She and her three feral siblings were found in the snowy Rocky Mountains and needed a home. I took them all in and became their temporary mother while they learned to trust and even love humans. Like many animals, Mazey was special. She was attentive, affectionate, and friendly. She loves to meet new people and give hugs, often at just the right time. Now at just over a year old, Mazey is my therapy cat.
Most of us who own pets intrinsically know the value they have in our lives. Whether we see them as a child or an animal, we love our pets and feel that love returned. Animal love is unconditional. Of earthly relationships, our relationship with our pet may be the most honest and pure we know. While our pets may manipulate us, we generally don’t lie to them or put on airs. We don’t get jealous of their friendships or their new car. They love us with or without makeup or a beard, whether we’re fat or thin. They love who we are, and we love who they are because of it.
I don’t have to tell you that research confirms just being in the presence of an animal can lower blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety, help with anger, depression, and loneliness, and even reduce the perception of pain. You already know that when you’re walking your dog or have a friend over who pets your cat, you find it easier to talk, open up, and be sociable. Social scientists call pets a “social lubricant”—a rather strange term to describe our greater sense of ease around other people when animals are present.
I opened a counseling center where we team with animals because of all the reasons above. We even developed a program called Filial Pet Therapy, where we teach parents to use their own pets to work with their children who have ongoing emotional or behavioral problems like autism, ADHD, and attachment issues. Not only do children and teenagers love to talk to the animals, but even my couples like an animal in session because it lowers the emotional temperature in the room. They find it easier to talk, listen, and really hear each other. Try to think of it—how often do you fight when there’s an adorable kitten or puppy sleeping beside you?
While I’d love for everyone to come to my office to meet Mazey and me, here are some simple things you can try at home, in your own family with your own pets.
- Hand your pet to a family member who is stressed, nervous, sad, or scared. If you’re experiencing these feelings, hold your pet—close to your heart if you can. Then if you can, talk about what’s bothering you with a human.
- Pet your animal as often as you can. We all need a lot more touch than we give ourselves. You’ll lower your stress and make your pet happy.
- Talk out loud to your pet when you have a problem that you need to unload. If you feel embarrassed about this, do it in the bathroom with the fan on. Talking out loud is an important step in problem-solving and healing. Then talk to a human—ask them to either just listen or to help you problem-solve.
- Cry with your pet after a loss and tell them all the reasons you miss who or what you have lost. Just as above, it’s important to share your grief, and they won’t ever tire of hearing the same thing after several months.
- Help your child train your pet to do a new trick. This will give you a fun activity that will bring you closer to your child, and they will get to practice some skills that are important for any child to learn: patience, sequencing, cause and effect, positive reinforcement, focus, and completion of a task.
- If you are isolated or a family member has not been socializing, take your dog to the dog park. Your dog can play with the other dogs while you meet their owners and chat about your adorable pets.
- If you have time, volunteer with your child at a local humane shelter. They always need folks to walk the dogs. You’ll get more exercise, have time to talk to your child, teach your child about volunteerism, and you’ll be helping the dogs become more adoptable.
- Encourage your pet to sleep with your child. Exposure to pets early in life has been shown to reduce allergies and makes children feel secure and loved through the night.
- Play, play, play. Take time with your children to enjoy the things your pet loves best. Whether it’s throwing sticks or stuffed mice, dangling chew toys or feathers, make time to laugh and be frivolous with your time. You’ll all be happier for it.
These are only a few things you can do with your pet to improve your mental health, your family relationships, and your pets’ happiness. Take some time and discover some of your own—and write me to tell me the results.
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LeeJuly 20th, 2010 at 1:28 PM
I used to have high blood pressure and a friend recommended having a pet.I am not too much into animals but because of the suggestion I finally got myself a dog and yes,I am more in control now and I feel very comfortable to have him around me and its just great,the way he just comes running to me whenever I return home from work :)
nathan dJuly 20th, 2010 at 3:45 PM
I absolutely love pets and that’s exactly the reason why I have 6 cats and 2 aquariums at home…not too good a combo,but it does get along ;)
VickJuly 21st, 2010 at 11:50 AM
Look, animals can add a whole other dimension to the lives of people who are in need.
Therapy dogs do a lot of health in mental health facilities.
The one thing that can always make me smile at the end of a rotten day is my pets.
edward JJuly 21st, 2010 at 4:27 PM
walking my dog just makes my day…after having returned from a tough day at work tht is d only thing tht can soothe me and give some peace of mind…I just love my dog :)
PerthJuly 24th, 2010 at 7:35 AM
I think one of the main benefits of having a pet is it moves the focus away from one’s self, to that of a dependent other, which is the animal. That is, you focus less on the pressures and stresses impacting your life and more on satisfying the needs of your pet which is why they make such good companions.
You can also enjoy activities with them, whether its walking the dog, playing with the cat or just watching the goldfish in the fish tank. All can be very pleasurable and all helps you move your focus off of your self and onto them. Even if this is for a short time, it still has significant benefits. I see it in my own profession as dog groomer and working at the vets.
at my husbands workplace, some of his colleagues have a fish bowl on their desks. I’d imagine, it helps provide some distraction from the day to day stresses in the office. If this distraction helps to take your mind off of stresses of the office, albeit for a short time, then isn’t this a good thing. I’ve read that this distraction may also help build up personal resilience again for the reason that it provides a welcome distraction and because you can just ‘zone out’ almost meditating, while you are watching them.
Sarah McMullenSeptember 29th, 2010 at 1:36 AM
I just like to share this quote to all dog lovers. I obtained this from a German Shepherd daily calendar I had last year. It was written by ‘anonymous’ and I guess spoke about the German Shepherd but it can apply to all dogs (and perhaps some cats?!)…… “He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion”.
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