Psychology professionals often recommend their clients obtain a pet as part of their mental health treatment. Or, they might prescribe structured weekly sessions with a trained therapeutic animal such a horse, dolphins, or a dog. Pet therapy helps people manage symptoms of schizophrenia, PTSD, major depression, and though it is not mentioned as frequently, anxiety.
Give and Take
Close human relationships are detrimental when they inhibit individuation (a person learning to trust what makes them distinct from others). By putting judgments, demands, and expectations on one another, a healthy sharing between confident, diverse individuals is stifled.
Pets, or therapeutic animals, put no demands or judgments on us. They do not expect us to be anything in particular, but they need to be cared for, and people generally thrive when giving animals loving attention. The needs of the animal and human are met without diminishing either of them.
I have felt cats rubbing their faces against mine and touching my cheek with claws carefully sheathed. These things, to me, are expressions of love.
~ James Herriot, author and vet
Caring for an animal is a loving responsibility. It gives our day a structure we cannot ignore, even if we feel hopeless or overwhelmed with anxiety. The routine of feeding and caring for an animal is a distraction from our problems and gets us moving, even when we prefer being a lump on the couch.
Pet care rituals also ground us in reality, keeping us physically, emotionally, and mentally in touch with the world. Sandy, a therapy client, said, “I get so anxious I won't leave the house, but then my cat runs out of treats or kitty litter and off I go to the store. I’m nervous the whole time, but I go.”
It is interesting that people who have pets are generally more active in community and civic affairs, are more likely to vote, and socialize more with their neighbors.
Playing and Socializing
Pets stir our innate nurturing mechanism and bring out the playful, childlike aspects of ourselves. Playing helps us relax, let down our defenses, it lightens our mood, and facilitates connecting to others. Having fun with an animal can give us permission to revisit lost innocence and trust. Even people locked in fear frequently open their hearts in the accepting presence of a pet or therapeutic animal.
For people with social anxiety pets are an instant conversation topic, especially if you bump into another pet lover. Most pet owners have a bottomless pit of kitty tales or bird escapades to share. Anyone who walks a dog knows what an attraction factor that is.
A non-judgmental relationship with an animal can spill over into human interaction as well, by raising a person’s sense of mastery, and self-esteem.
Some pets provide their people with a feeling of protection and safety. Dogs can be loyal protectors, even the small varieties. Cats have been known to protect their special humans, and they always let you know when something unusual is going on. However, the presence of a lizard or a few fish, because they are living beings, can provide the security that comes from having company.
People with severe symptoms of a mental illness can become even more symptomatic when owning a pet. The responsibility may be more than they are ready to handle, or the animal might trigger their symptoms in unexpected ways.