How Animals Help Regulate Mental Health

When childhood mental illness rears its head, consider a family pet.

Posted Sep 10, 2014

I write this piece as a person who (sadly) has extensive practical experience with childhood mental illnesses. I am not a physician or a clinician of any sort. My battle scars are my ersatz LCSW, MD, and PsyD. (My PhD is in English, which is not exactly irrelevant...but you probably don’t want to use this blog as your ONLY source of advice. Just saying.) 

I have to say, though: when it comes to animals promoting wellness, physical and mental, I know my stuff. 

When Lars and I downsized our family to a smaller house, to accommodate the fact that Ben’s revolving psychiatric unit admissions and irregular school attendance meant that one of us had to give up paid work, we decided the time had come to adopt a dog.

This would not be our first family pet. Our two kids were born into a household that included three cats and an elderly dog Those cats and that big, kindly old mutt got me through four years of watching my older sister fight breast cancer--a fight she lost at age 36--and several major surgeries of my own. They were my truest companions during my separation and divorce from my first husband--which I initiated, rather inconveniently, in the middle of my sister’s drawn-out illness.

They had to be. My then-husband could not talk to me about anything running deeper than an eighth-inch below the surface. My parents were unfortunately busy with a dying child, and could not be bothered with my marital discontents. I had friends who would have listened, but really? Who wants to be that person who yammers on and on about her own depressing life?

I wanted to be that person, actually, which is where my pets came in handy. Animals are pretty good listeners, and most of them demand little more than kibbles, shelter, and affection in return.

My pets LOVED listening to me drone on about what was wrong with my life. Or if they didn’t, they were very good pretenders. (Have you noticed that animals don’t roll their eyes, suppress yawns, or discreetly glance at their watches while you regale them with your tales of woe? If not, pay attention next time.) They seemed to know what tears meant; invariably they came to me when I was crying and offered themselves up as furry consolation prizes. They apparently knew loneliness, too, because wherever I parked myself in the house, pretty soon there would be five of us there: three members of the feline persuasion, one canine, and a human who was perilously close to becoming a crazy cat-and-dog lady.

Thank goodness they gave me the chance to teeter on the brink of that madness!

To return from my labyrinthine detour to the story of Lars and me and downsizing our house and upsizing our quadrupedal census: our old Russ-dog had died four years earlier, at the ripe age of fourteen(ish). Our darling kitties, all adopted around the same age and within a year or two of each other, departed one after the other in our first three years in the house we eventually needed to leave behind.

We were a week into the new, little bitty house when I said to Lars, “We HAVE to have a pet. NOW.” (The animal madness was making me madly impatient.) We had already commenced on our journey into the dark regions of disability parenting, and our collective stress levels were off the charts.

Shortly before we decided the time was right, Lars mentioned casually to his primary care physician that we were going to get a dog. She replied, “Good! That dog will bring your blood pressure down better than anything. Do it.”

So we did it. The story of Noo Noo the Keeshond is one I will save for another time. Suffice it to say he has an anxiety disorder of his own (naturally!), and for years he simply ratcheted up our household angst. Since he joined the rest of us as a proud citizen of the Prozac Nation, he's been able to serve quite capably as “Chief Resident in Fluff Therapy,” right here in our home. 

When's the last time your non-fluffy therapist made a housecall?

Seriously, though. Animals have saved my life more than once, figuratively speaking. Horses. Cats. Dogs. And I believe they have literally saved my son, in concert with other therapeutic measures. Not only do animals make him feel good, but shared responsibility for their care has taught him some pretty important life skills.

Ben relies on the sensory stimuli he receives from Noo Noo, when he visits home, and the therapeutic animals at his school, which include rabbits, guinea pigs, and a posse of farm animals. The bodily warmth, the softness of stroked fur, the quiet pressure of a plump bunny on his lap while he sits at his classroom computer and does his work--all of those sensory pleasures help regulate his often churning emotions.

Those of us who parent or treat people with autism spectrum disorders and/or psychiatric dysregulation--or who live with those conditions ourselves--know exactly how, if not why, the presence of animals in our daily lives can help us get through the day. I know the same goes for people who suffer from a host of physical maladies.

That’s not to suggest that allergies and fears don’t interfere with this modality in some cases. Or empty wallets--a disadvantage we are well acquainted with around our house.

What I want convey here, is that therapeutic animals are worth a try. Any pet with the right temperament can be therapeutic--you don’t necessarily need a service or specially trained dog, if your child’s issue (or yours) is bipolar disorder or agoraphobia or something of that nature. Just a soft, friendly creature will do--and if he or she gets you out of the house every day, all the better.

Bringing an animal into one’s home is a serious decision that requires a serious commitment to the animal's care and keeping. It does no one any good if neglect of ANY living household member occurs. But I speak from experience--my own and my child’s--when I say that sometimes the Fluff Therapist beats the psychotherapist and the psychopharmacologist, hands down. You should retain both of these, of course--but what’s great about Ginger or Max is that their caseload is guaranteed to be really, really low. And it goes without saying they take your insurance--after you cover any initial adoption fees.

You can read more on the physical and mental health benefits of pet ownership by clicking below--and there are plenty more online resources to help you decide if a pet could be a therapeutic presence in your household (this is just a nibble):

Readers, have you used animal therapy of any sort for yourselves or another? What did you get out of it?

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