Pet Shop Joys
They sneak into our beds, eat our slippers, poo on our carpets, expect us to feed them and we love them for it. Caroline Holroyd examines what our pets do for our mental health
For as long as I can remember animals have played a crucial role in my life, particularly where my mental health is concerned. There is no doubt in my mind that my pets have helped keep me afloat during those times when all I wanted to do was drown. From Equine Therapy (a type of therapy involving interaction with horses) to the use of Pets as Therapy (P.A.T) dogs in hospitals and care homes; the therapeutic value of animals to people with mental health difficulties has been known about for decades, despite the availability of scientific research in this area remaining patchy at best. The acclaimed documentary film Dolphin Boy, about a young man who recovers from severe trauma by having dolphin-assisted therapy, was shortlisted for a Mind Media Award last year and brought attention to the myriad benefits spending time with animals can bring to people with mental health difficulties.
So what is it about caring for a pet that is beneficial for people with mental health difficulties, and are there any downsides?
I have four pets – two rabbits, a cat and a guinea pig – that I love unconditionally and enjoy spending time with. Knowing I have the daily responsibility of caring for my pets, each with their own unique set of needs has helped create some structure in my life. On those days when I’m feeling low and just getting out of bed feels like a task of herculean proportions remembering that I have my pets who are completely dependent on me can be a strong motivator and something which regularly prevents a low mood spiralling into something more serious. I’ve found that just managing to get out of bed to feed my pets has often encouraged me to eat something myself and connect with friends on Facebook, something which has become a veritable lifeline when I’m isolating myself.
When I’m feeling extremely distressed cuddling one of my pets can have a calming, therapeutic effect, temporarily offering me a much appreciated reprieve from my own thoughts and feelings and allowing me to focus on the intimate details of the here and now, such as the toothy purr my bunny makes when I tickle behind her ears or the feel of my cat’s soft fur when he nestles beside me. I try my best to always smile and put on a cheery voice when I see my pets – sometimes this even succeeds in lifting my mood! My affection for my pets is not completely one sided however, there have been plenty of times when they appear to empathise with how I’m feeling and will come and quietly sit with me. Unlike human beings, they don’t demand to know ‘what’s wrong?’ and will never judge me or assert that a hot milky drink will stop me feeling suicidal.
Christian, a volunteer with Time to Change has an eclectic display of pets sharing his home – two crested geckos, two quails and a hedgehog. He told me how he believes his pets have helped him manage his depression: “Having pets has allowed me to maintain a routine even at times when self-care doesn’t seem like a priority. Caring for a pet gives you the drive to stay well for the welfare of the animal.”
For Wendy, adopting pet rabbits has had a positive impact on her life and mental health. Having suffered from recurrent depression for the past twenty years the daily routine of taking care of her pets has meant “staying in bed until midday is not an option” and helped stabilize her mood. “Going back to bed after tending the beasts is still an option but once I’ve been outside for twenty minutes (often in my jammies) I’m more likely to have breakfast than go back to bed.” Like me she finds stroking her rabbits can help alleviate distressing feelings and make day-to-day life that bit more manageable: “Stroking them reduces my stress and anxiety levels. OK, so sometimes my anxiety levels are so high that the tiny reduction they bring does not make me better able to cope with daily life, but they do help a bit. Every day, no matter how low I feel, I manage to laugh or smile at them. It may be only for a moment or two, but I do smile. I take joy from the feel of their fur against my cheek, I laugh at their antics.”
Whether you have a hamster or a hedgehog pets demand a great deal of time and energy, which can be in short supply during periods of illness. Having a pet can be beneficial for people with mental health difficulties, so it’s important to consider the possible downsides and how you will manage them, particularly when you’re struggling yourself and if you need to go into hospital.
Although it is not something any of us want to think about you may need to consider how you will be affected by the death of a pet. Simone Erika Goodfellow, an author and mental health blogger who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder highlights the difficulty of coping with the death of a pet: “The downside to having a pet, and especially rodents, would be that they die within a few years and it means I have to be strong enough to deal with frequent deaths.” There are pet bereavement services available, offered by charities such as the Blue Cross, who can provide support if you are finding it difficult to cope with the death of a pet.
If you’re thinking of getting a pet do your research and, if possible, avoid the temptation of impulsivity when it comes to adopting an animal. The Royal Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the Blue Cross provide free information leaflets available online, and your local vets and adoption centre will be able to advice you on your pet’s individual care needs.
Christian stresses the importance of being realistic when thinking about getting a pet: “Though a pet can be a wonderful companion and aid your recovery in general, it is important to be realistic about the animal’s care needs, “ he says. “Some animals may require a larger time or financial investment than others – it’s important to choose your pet wisely and go with something that you one hundred percent know you have the time and energy to keep to a high standard. Finding out too late that you and your flat are unable to accommodate a Great Dane definitely would not aid your well-being or your pet’s”
Making sure your friends are fine
If you go into hospital or during times of illness find it impossible to take care of your pets you may have to find some temporary, alternative provision. The first port of call in that particular storm could be to ask friends, family or a trusted neighbour if they would be willing to look after your pets if/when you are unable to, making sure to leave them instructions on how to care for your pet and who to call in an emergency. If this is not an option, you could look into boarding facilities or a pet-sitter who will come into your home and care for your pet, but remember to do your research first and make sure you are able to handle the costs involved.
There are also pet fostering services available where a volunteer fosterer will take on the care of your pet. This service varies greatly depending on where you live but your local vet or RSPCA centre should be able to point you in the right direction and signpost you to support in your area.
For me, the positives of having a pet far outweigh the negatives but I recognise I’m lucky to have family members who are able to help out when I’m finding things difficult. There are small, short-term adaptations you can make when it comes to caring for your pets when unwell. On ‘cleaning day’ if I’m lacking motivation I will clean half the rabbit hutch that day and come back the next day to clean the other half.
Something I struggle with – especially when unwell – is a niggling sense of guilt that because I have mental health difficulties I am unable to take care of my pets properly, or at the very least not as well as people who don’t have mental health difficulties. It’s important for me to know my pets will be looked after even when I am struggling to look after myself.
Remember: Don’t be too hard on yourself. If your pet’s breakfast is an hour late they’re unlikely to disown you – although they may decide to ignore you for the rest of the day!
Royal Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: www.rspca.org.uk
National Association of Registered Pet-Sitters: www.dogsit.com
Blue Cross: www.bluecross.org.uk
Find pet boarding: www.findpetboarding.com
Pets in Need of Vets (PDSA): www.pdsa.org.uk
Find a vet: www.any-uk-vet.co.uk