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Benefits of Pets for Mental Health: Here’s My Story.

mental health pet ownership
I don’t really open up about this. I’ve suffered from panic, anxiety, and most recently, some depression after my beloved dad (and BFF… seriously, my BFF), passed away in October of 2017, so almost 7 months ago.
I remember the last time I saw him. It was at the end of August, and my cousin called me at 11 PM on a Sunday night, and I either thought she was butt dialing me or something was wrong, so I answered. Something was wrong. I went home, dad had double pneumonia, and he was in the ICU. Hospital, hospice, home. Home, hospice, hospital. Pittsburgh to Illinois. And back again.
He died two months later.
I didn’t really want to get out of bed most days; I even left my big-time job that I’d worked so hard to climb the ladder with (and started writing for SPS, which was the best decision I’ve EVER made). But I was looking for a companion, something or someone to just help me through it. Not necessarily talk, but just be there. Really, just be. My family was an amazing support system, of course. They understood, kind of. But, my pet… he understood without saying anything. Not. One. Word. And he got it more than anyone else did. May 2 was his first heaven birthday, and Harold snuck into my bed and licked the tears off of my face at 2 AM when he heard me quietly sobbing, trying not to wake up my husband and my daughter. We went on the couch and binged Bunflix a few minutes later.
Life happens. And while we all go through trying times, I don’t really know if we’re ever really ready for them. I wasn’t. And that human-small pet bond is completely undeniable.
According to Desiree Wiercyski, a life coach in Fort Wayne, IN, “A pet can make you feel like you’re not alone. Pets offer unconditional love, which can be unconditionally soothing when you’re feeling isolated.” Touch helps increase oxytocin levels and reduces cortisol, the stress-related hormone. And trust me, I’ve lived it.
Sandra Barker, a professor of psychiatry and the director of the Center for Human and Animal interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University said, that after surveys, people with severe depression felt more relaxed, less lonely, and had less pain after visits with animals. I couldn’t believe all of the studies that have been done on this topic. And why we don’t talk about it more blows my mind. Animals can help you. They’re so much like us, and they need interaction, too. It actually helps them when they help us.
Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is becoming more and more popular (for good reason). Care homes, prisons… any place that needs some sort of mental rehabilitation is taking advantage of this gift. It’s a gift. In 2013, a study in the journal of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry found that ten weeks of animal assisted therapy halted the progression of depression, agitation and aggression in dementia patients.
In Britain, SKUNKS are being used to calm schizophrenia patients, snakes help with bipolar and chins are prompting memories with those suffering from dementia. Many times, when we’re having mental health issues, we’re so, so concerned about if we’re being judged. Who’s talking about us? We can relate to animals because we know that they’re loving us, no matter what, unconditionally. They don’t care if we didn’t shower that day. Or if we didn’t change our socks. Or pants. Or we didn’t brush our teeth until 11 AM. Or 11 PM.
Physical activity helps us get through the hard days. Going for a ten minute walk on a sunny day. Social time – pets can open an entire new world to your grief. You’ll still be sad, but they are infamous for giving you a few little nose bumps or kind kisses when they know you’re feeling down.
When I feel sad, Harold (my little guy) feels sad. When I’m happy, he’s a hoot. When I need him, he’s there. He reads my body language, often times better than my husband. Ha. (Chris, get better at that!) But in all seriousness, it’s really just a bond that no one can take away from me. Or him. Actually, us.
As I began this post, I was a little teary eyed. And now I’m smiling because of the joy I see when I look at my fur baby. He helped me through the worst day. The worst week. And he’ll help me through the year of firsts, too.
 I love you, H.

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