FOR some of us. dogs and cats are more than just pets,” wrote journalist Tom Jacobs. “They’re
blood pressure meds with wet noses.” These cute and cuddly fleabags aren’t just eating machines; they are our best friends, loyal companions, and in-house psychiatrists. Pets have been proven to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels in humans, reducing the risk of heart disease. Emotionally, their loving eyes and comforting presence is kryptonite to a heavy heart. Pets are highly therapeutic for people who suffer from stress, mood, psychiatric, or anxiety disorders – truly an impressive trade off for a few bags of kibble per month.
Any animal can be a member of your mental health support team: dogs, cats, birds, fish. Everyone needs to be heard and loves to be needed. The bond between humans and pets is on equal footing. We need them for companionship, physical, and emotional health and they need us for exercise, love, and food. Pets keep their owners grounded and force them to look outside their problems and to focus on the needs of others.
A “doggy psychiatrist” can be a huge help to their human companion. Dogs are loving, non-judgmental listeners, wanting to be with their owners. Whether practicing for a job interview or simply
needing to rant after a stressful day, a pet is a reliable sounding board to help people formulate their thoughts and to regulate their emotions.
Pet therapy is not a new initiative in the health care system but it is an expanding one. Adolescents are amongst the largest demographic suffering from a range of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, mood disorders, autism, and attention deficit disorder (ADD). However, there are a variety of pet-based programs and organizations that are available to help youth deal with their issues.
Eileen Kilbride,psychological consultant of children’s services at Trellis Mental Health and Development Services, has used the bond between humans and animals as part of her treatment program with children. In one case, she introduced her adopted dog into the therapeutic process of a seven-year-old child. By sharing the story of the dog’s pain and separation from its former family, the
child was able to open up and share his similar experiences about abandonment. Working with pets helps youth learn to trust authority figures, while boosting their self-confidence and providing a stepping stone for healing and personal growth.
Therapeutic Dogs of Canada (fOPC) is another example of an organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with physical, mental, educational, motivational, and socialization issues. This non-profit volunteer pet therapy program provides resources for individuals through regular visits to hospitals, retirement homes, and schools. The organization recognizes that connections between humans and pets help calm people, stimulate social interaction, and accelerate recovery. Simply petting a dog can help even the most agitated patient open up and begin talking to the volunteers.
Post-secondary institutions across the country, including the University of
Guelph, Dalhousie University, and Queens University, have harnessed this important connection and are making strides to incorporate pet therapy into their wellness programs to help students deal with the stresses of academic life. According to the University of Guelph’s Counseling Services, the university has seen a rise in the number of students who access counseling from 1O to 15% each year over
the last five years. On January 17th, 2013, the University of Guelph Undergraduate Students’ Association partnered with Therapeutic Dogs of Canada to hold their first “Therapy Dog Drop In” event,enabling 300 students to enjoy a relaxing and playful environment with dogs. Smiles, laughter, and cuddles were contagious as giddy students received a taste of home, helping them prepare for the rest of the semester.
Mental health is not however, related to age, gender, social, or economic status. People tend to be environmentally or genetically predisposed to these issues . As science develops, more options become available for treatment because researchers are achieving a better understanding of the brain. Medications, psychotherapy, and self-care are some of the many treatments that can combat symptoms. Exercise doeswonders to elevate mood and to enhance health. Pets force people to get up off of their couches and out into the fresh air. Pets are also perfect conversation starters – you can meet new people just by walking your dog.
The benefits of pet therapy are outstanding. Pet owners have greater self-esteem, are more physically fit, they are less lonely, more extroverted , and less fearful. Pets provide routine in people’s lives; no matter how depressed a person is, Fido needs to be fed, walked, and to
have bathroom breaks throughout the day. This provides a sense of responsibility, engagement, and it reminds people that they are needed and capable.
Dogs, cats, and all other feathery and furry friends are wonderful for people in need of companionship or healing. Pets make a tremendous difference in many lives and they help in illness recovery.They promote better mental and physical health and help boost the feel-good chemicals
in our brains. They are not only healers; they are our best friends and part of our families. They are the puppy pal nation of psychotherapy.