As many of you may know by now, I was very poorly a few years ago with mental ill health. What you don’t know is that one of the things that got me through the long lonely days sat at home was my cat, Bubbles. I was too poorly to go out, not physically, but mentally. I wasn’t able to process the actions and effort that it took to leave the house, I had no interest in leaving the house, and only tended to venture out when I was feeling aggravated to self-harm. So I spent a very lengthy amount of time in the house and sometimes going into the garden, I rarely socialised with ‘friends’ and social media wasn’t of any interest to me. I was done with living, to be honest.
But my ‘protective factor’, the one thing that kept me going, was my cat, Bubbles. She was the runt of the litter and was bullied by her brothers and sisters for being so small. My dad, in secret, adopted her and one day she appeared in the living room. Initially I thought a random cat had walked into the house, but dad told me that she was mine and that I needed to name her.
She became the closest and most loving companion anyone could ask for; she would go everywhere with me. Wait on the stairs at bedtime for me, come outside into the garden to play string and feather with me, and cuddle me all night. I swear to this day she knew I was poorly and needed someone/something. She helped me, I looked forward to the next day knowing she’d be by my side, I looked forward to going out to get her new toys (yes, going out!), I was more motivated as I was her support too.
I totally support the therapy dog movement and the positive impact animals have on patients. Animals and mental health go hand-in-hand and we should utilise our furry little friends more when we are feeling shoddy and in need of support!
In recent decades, studies have suggested that face-to-face and physical interaction can reaffirm important social bonds that establish a sense of belonging to combat feelings of loneliness or isolation, and that these interactions are essential to our overall sense of wellbeing.
In particular, animal companionship, has been shown to have positive correlations with mental health by helping to reduce anxiety, depression and stress. Which might explain why so many people view their pets as extensions of their family: the interaction, acceptance, and unconditional love they provide, helps to fulfil that sense of belonging which we might not be receiving from other relationships.
What’s more, animal interaction can promote more positive coping mechanisms in individuals that struggle with mental health issues. For instance, pets have been shown to be a great motivator by encouraging exercise through play which can boost serotonin levels, increasing feelings of happiness and overall wellbeing. Dogs especially can offer a sense of routine, plus they provide good talking points to initiate conversation with other people and dog walkers.
And, on a more personal note, as someone who has owned both cats and dogs, I can definitely testify to their comforting abilities.
I love spending time with my cocker spaniel, Beau, because there is something pure about the energy which he brings to any situation that never fails to make me smile and laugh. It’s also
always good to see how excited he gets whenever I come home from uni. We often joke about how if he wagged his tail any faster he would take off like a propeller. He has helped bring a routine to our family, and we love spending time with him by taking him out on walks or playing fetch.
My cat Delilah however, is like the night to his day. She will be content to just make herself comfortable in my lap and quietly demand my attention, all the while loudly purring to let me know how much she missed me.
When you get close to an animal it’s easy to ascribe human emotion to certain behaviour and I believe through understanding and empathy with animals we can better understand our own emotions. So, regardless of what kind of animal person you are, these interactions can be beneficial.
Animals. ‘A man’s best friend’, ‘the bane of my existence’, ‘a thing that never stops running around no matter how many walks you take it on during the day.’
They’re great, and they can have a huge impact on our mental health in a positive way.
As I am writing this, one of my dogs has all four legs pressed against the back of the sofa, fast asleep. My other dog is also asleep, taking up the entirety of the sofa, and my cat is spreadeagled with his paws positioned as though he is holding a cup of tea. These are the moments I feel nothing but love. However, prior to this moment, I spent 4 hours throwing a ball relentlessly to get them to this point. Those moments, of trying to revise but having to obey my dogs’ demands, I cherish slightly less.
For the most part, I think having animals greatly benefits your mental health. They’re always there, ready to cuddle whenever. They get excited at random times, and try to lick your face when you’ve got something tasty left on it…ew.
But, I wouldn’t be being honest if I didn’t say that sometimes they don’t help your mental state. Whenever my two dogs get into a fight, bark incessantly at night, or destroy the work I’ve been doing for hours in the time it takes me to get some coffee, I wonder why I am putting myself through the stress. I find myself becoming more stressed out with no other option than to start again because, for some reason, the perfectly valid excuse of ‘my dog ate my homework’ no longer applies in the real world.
However, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives when it comes to owning pets. Although I can’t get back the hours I’ve spent walking in the rain, only to come home and still be expected to throw the ball for another 2 hours of my life, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The moments of de-stress are the ones to cherish, and the ones you remember. Spending time with your animals is a therapeutic experience. (Unless your hamster likes to bite you every single time you touch it, it was slightly harder for me to call those therapeutic moments of my life, but hey ho.)