How Pets Can Impact Mental Health (with cat and dog videos!)

Part 2: Deeper Into Mental Health Benefits

By Caera Gramore

[image description: close-up view of the face of a gray tabby cat lounging on a couch reminiscent of a Freudian therapy couch but sized for the cat, from the same photo shoot as the title image for Part 1 of this article.]
Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

Hello readers! Last week I introduced some benefits pets bring for human mental health. This week we go a little bit deeper into these benefits, and the mental health challenges that pets can assist with.

Attachment

[image description: A baby with light brown skin wearing a red shirt and pants with images of cartoon dogs and a red hat with cartoon animal features is lying on a fur blanket in a light colored bassinet. A stuffed animal pig leans over the bassinet on the left of the image. To the right of the image, a medium sized black and white dog wearing a red jacket is attending to the baby and licking the baby’s hand.]
Photo by Minnie Zhou on Unsplash

In therapy, Attachment Theory is the study of how people form and maintain relationships, and the impact this can have both on future relationships and on mental and physical health. Recently, I attended an Attachment Summit in which more than one presenter commented that when we move ourselves into “nurturing mode”, we pull ourselves out of “fight, flight, or freeze”. Caring for a pet presents frequent opportunities to calm our nervous systems by caring for someone else, putting ourselves in “nurturing mode”.

In neurobiology, studies have begun to show what chemicals contribute to certain feelings, behaviors, and attachments in people, and what can stimulate our bodies to release those chemicals. Here are 2 adorable videos in which a PhD candidate in neuroscience explains some of these chemical responses in “Your Brain on Puppies” and “Your Brain on Kittens”.

Trauma Recovery

[image description: a white bunny leans up out of a wooden box and sniffs a dandelion]
Photo by Elijah O’Donnell from Pexels

Pets can even help with trauma recovery. In his book When the Body Says No, Dr. Gabor Maté describes a patient who could not perceive her own feelings after trauma. She learned how to recognize when she was angry by noticing responses in her pet rabbit; when she was angry, the rabbit wouldn’t let her touch him, when otherwise the rabbit was happy to be petted. Dr. Maté ascribes this to the limbic system, a significant component of all mammals’ brains that is most active when we are responding to others’ feelings through their facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and other signals. This is part of why pets often know when to come close or move away based on when we feel sad or angry.

In the book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes about how when a person has been traumatized so badly that they have a hard time trusting or connecting with other people, having them connect to another mammal, like a dog or cat, can help them recover their capacity to make healthy connections, help them regulate their own emotions, and eventually help them to build trust skills and to socialize more in general. Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie, a center for children who have experienced trauma, has led by example in hiring therapy dogs to work with the kids at their center and in court. Dr. David Crenshaw has spoken about how much these dogs are able to help the kids, even when human therapists are having a hard time connecting with a kid.

[image description: A long haired orange tabby cat sleeping on her back with her legs relaxed and her belly exposed.]
This is Lucy, who came into my life as a rescued cat when she was 4 years old. Cats are usually protective of their bellies; for a cat to expose their belly takes quite a lot of trust in their environment and nearby people and animals. This photo is from after she’d been living with me for a few years.
Photo by Caera

Importantly, we can combine these benefits of pets for extra healing. For example, we can combine “nurturing mode” which helps our own nervous system with our often easier connection to mammals when we help a rescued animal heal and recover. We can be inspired to heal more ourselves as we watch the rescued pet heal. This can give us hope that anyone can heal, and help us to feel like we’ve made a positive contribution to someone we care for. Grateful animals can be sensitive to our feelings and needs also, producing more benefits. This is one of the bases of the “Who rescued who?” stickers you may see on cars sometimes.

[image description: a white sticker on a dark tinted rear window of a white SUV with the words “Who Rescued Who?” next to an image of a dog pawprint in the palm of a human handprint]
Photo by Sharp Edge Designs

Content warning: brief crisis/SI mention. You can skip this paragraph and go to “What if You Can’t Have a Pet?” below if needed.

Pets can help reduce mental health crisis symptoms, and even save lives. In clinical work we often help clients make a crisis plan, or a plan for both how to recognize when a mental health crisis may be coming, and what to do to hopefully reverse it or at least keep it from getting worse. The skills used to reverse, prevent, or manage symptoms are called coping skills. In both individual and group sessions to write crisis plans, I have seen many clients suggest coping skills that involve pets – walking a dog, snuggling with a cat or dog, watching humorous pet videos online, etc. On a lifesaving level, pets can be what are known as “protective factors”, or reasons why someone “can’t go through with it”, in suicide prevention. Suicide prevention and crisis call workers frequently hear from callers how, even though they thought about it, they would not harm themselves because they couldn’t abandon their pet(s).


What if You Can’t Have a Pet?

[image description: a volunteer with tan skin and dark brown short wavy hair wearing a blue headband, white face mask, yellow shorts, and a blue shirt that says “ifaw animal rescue” stands on one side of a red pipe steel fence, reaching up and petting a brown and white pinto horse on the other side of the fence]
Photo by International Fund for Animal Welfare from Pexels

While pets can be wonderful, they are not always the best option for everyone. Some people can’t have pets where they live, some people can’t afford to care for a pet, or there could be other reasons why living with a pet just isn’t the right option for you. However, you can still benefit from pets in various other ways: volunteer at a pet shelter or farm animal rescue, do some pet-sitting and/or dog walking gigs, ask a friend or neighbor if you can spend time with their pet or take their pet for a walk, or watch cute or silly animal videos online.

Conclusion

[image description: a woman with light skin and medium length straight light brown hair wearing a black dress with white dots is hugging a black and white malamute (a large dog)]
Photo by La Miko from Pexels

This is the 2nd of 2 consecutive articles about pets and their impact on mental health. If you missed it, the first one is here.

Have you noticed any of these benefits of pets on your own physical and mental health? In what ways have you benefitted from pets?

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