The Wonderful World of ‘Woof’ and Other Animal Pals

Pets: the animal antidepressant. Mine? Cosmo who's made for love not for speed.

Posted May 30, 2011

Cosmo. Not as in the eccentric character ‘Kramer' from the sit-com Seinfeld or an alternative name for the Universe. But ‘Cosmo' as in the best dog in the world (at least in my opinion). He is our 12 year old auburn-furred Doberman Lab with silly smiles and a relaxed disposition who grunts and snores while sleeping. He has a big bark, and absolutely no bite. And he is part of my ‘personal medicine' arsenal that helps maintain my mental health.

Personal medicine is the non-pharmalogical things we do or have that help get and keep us healthy. Activities and choices I make in addition to the anti-depressant and mood stabilizer I take. Exercise, therapy, prayer, watching reruns of ‘Friends', good warm talks with Gord, my husband are just a few of mine. And Cosmo. He has been with me before I met Gord, but after my psychosis.

It's not news that pets, of all kinds, have healing benefits for a variety of ills. Lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety, boosting self-esteem, decreasing loneliness and inducing relaxation are only the beginning.

According to Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, studies there have shown that petting a dog not only lowers the blood pressure of the individual, but the blood pressure of the dog as well.

In addition, the University of New England in Australia conducted a study and found that "cat owners had fewer psychiatric disturbances than those without feline friends". (Psychology Today Magazine, Mar/Apr 2001)

Pets, dogs in particular, offer an unconditional, often sloppy kind love that even the best of friends or family are hard pressed to provide. This constant of love can be very grounding for those us handling unpredictable mood disorders.

What may not be widely known are the benefits of what are now called Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSD). Different than a pet, a PSD is properly trained for specific tasks and works with one person rather than being the ‘family' pet.

A PSD provides more emotional assistance rather than physical (as in the case with other service dogs) for a person living with mental illness.

Science hasn't studied the extent of effectiveness, but PSD owners attest to the benefits provided by their psychiatric service dog.

PSDs can remind handlers to take medication, interrupt repetitive behaviors common with obsessive-compulsive disorder, ease paranoia with reality testing; some can even sense panic attacks and manias. For symptoms of depression, dogs are trained for persistent sadness with ‘cuddle, kiss and hug' commands as well ‘wake-up calls' at specific times for excessive sleeping.

In 2002, Joan Esnayra, PhD., a geneticist who lives with bipolar disorder, established the Psychiatric Service Dog Society. Although not all people need, nor should they have a PSD, its interesting and exciting information.

But it's not always the wisest choice to become a pet parent and sometimes just not realistic or even possible to become one.

When I was still in the very acute stages of bipolar disorder - being responsible for catching my bus on time to get to my vocational rehab program was enough challenge. But as both my illness and life began to smooth out - I could consider a pet.

Initially I moved out from my parent's home to live with roommates. I was still building my stamina for work as well as learning to live with others. It still wasn't time to find a furry companion, nor did I have the money.

Then I made the leap to living on my own, and my pay cheque, along with my moods were steadier.

I knew it would be too easy to isolate in my basement suite after work and on weekends. I could already feel the edge of loneliness creeping in. I needed to be proactive. And I knew now was the time for me to find an animal companion.

I searched the SPCAs for months. apology out there to cat lovers, I lean toward the canine population. I took several dogs for walks. And thought long and hard about not just what kind of dog would be best for me, but what I could realistically offer a dog. The last thing I needed was to meet the forlorn eyes of a depressed dog when I came home from work.

I thought about activity level, noise factor (I was renting), size, age, and my temperament. I knew I liked running and taking walks - but I didn't do this all the time. So a high activity dog wasn't going to be happy with me.

When I saw I Cosmo for the first, honestly I thought he was sort of funny looking. He was ‘shacking up' with this other dog Boo-boo who dwarfed Cosmo. And frankly, Cosmo has sort of odd proportions and freakishly small feet. He reminds me of a wiener dog that's been enlarged. He's got a long body and somewhat squat legs. He's build for love not for speed.

I took him for a walk and he kept checking in with me to make sure he was going in the right direction. He got along with other dogs. I couldn't handle conflict with other people, so dog were out of the question. I went away and thought about it - again.

About a week later I returned his picture proudly displayed on the desk of the SPCA. He was the featured ‘DOTW' (Dog of the Week). There was his goofy muzzle grinning for the camera. He'd been in this SPCA for over 6 months, and three months in one in Abbotsford and no one had snapped him up. It was beyond me. But maybe some things are just meant to be.

I asked to see Cosmo. And no sooner had they brought him out, than he plunked himself down on the linoleum, shamelessly showed me his belly and burped. It was love at first sight.

After all the paper work was done, I went right out to buy him a purple leash and a leather collar. We had found each other. I don't know who was happier. Him or me?

It took awhile to adjust to each other. I hadn't had a dog in decades. But it was a good process and he was easy to get to know. No sooner had he come home, than did he start nudging his way onto my bed. And I'm a sucker for a cute face and wet kiss. know what I mean.

Sometimes however, it's just not the right time for a pet. Here are some suggestions to have some animal contact without having to become a "pet parent".

1. Volunteer at your local animal shelter.
2. Visit a dog park. Most owners love talking about their pets.
3. Participate in ‘Paws for Cause' walk-a-thons. You don't have to be a pet owner, just an animal lover.
4. See if anyone in your neighborhood needs help walking their dog.
5. Offer to pet-sit for friends and family.
6. Walk in the woods. It's amazing the critters you'll see.
7. Put out a bird feeder. You may not be able to cuddle a wild bird, but its great way to start having some animal connections.
8. Feed the ducks at a marsh or park lagoon. Try to use bird seed, not bread. Bread has very few nutrients for birds.
9. Visit The site offers a fun "Dog Selector Quiz", to help choose the best breed of dog, cat, what have you, for you based on size, activity, temperament, coat, etc.

If you are thinking of getting a pet, consider these important questions before doing so:

1.How much time do you have to devote to a pet? A dog might be too demanding, whereas a cat or fish might be more suitable.
2.If renting, does your building allow pets? What kinds?
3.Will you be moving in the near future where pets won't be allowed?
4.Do you have the money to keep your pet healthy? Some pets cost more to ‘keep' than others.
5.Do you need a pet that doesn't shed? Do you have allergies?
6.Do you have roommates or children? Will a pet be a problem for them?
7.Are you healthy enough, emotionally ready and willing to care for an animal for the next decade? Dogs and cats and can easily live for 10 - 15 years.

When the time was right and I had asked myself all the questions I needed to and answered them honestly, there was only one left: would my next boyfriend like dogs?

The answer is yes. Gord (who is no longer my boyfriend, but my husband) loves Cosi-moto (as we call him sometimes). And if Gord hadn't? Well, that's a no-brainer. The dude or the dog? The dog always wins. Thank goodness I didn't have to make that decision.

© 2011 Victoria Maxwell