How Pets Help With Mental Health, According To 10 Dog, Cat, & Rabbit Parents
Pets may not be able to communicate in the same ways that people do, but they have a lot of compassion, unconditional love, and joy to offer their human companions. While many folks can gain a lot from adopting a fur baby, pets can especially help with mental health if you live with mental illness or manage stress.
Research has shown that owning a pet can be extremely therapeutic. A 2018 review of 17 studies discovered that having a pet gives people with mental health disorders a sense of security, deeper meaning in life, and can ease feelings of distress, loneliness, and hopelessness. The analysis also found that owning a pet helped people with an array of mental health conditions, including those living with PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression, and even schizophrenia. Furthermore, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reported that having a pet can alleviate stress and anxiety in general.
"Dependent on the person, animals have been shown to improve mood, help regulate their emotions, assist those who have difficulty bonding with others, and in a more general sense, serve to open up guarded or skeptical people to the idea that therapy can actually be a tool for change," Dr. Jeff Nalin, a clinical psychologist, told Bustle in 2018.
Living with depression, anxiety, or another mental health disorder isn't easy, but many folks have found that adopting a furry (or scaly) friend can be life-changing — for the better. Here's how 10 cat, dog, and rabbit parents say their animals have helped them cope with mental illness and get through difficult times.
1. Bella, 23
Bella tells Bustle that her cat Gus, before he passed away, always had a way of helping her get through panic attacks. "Gus would just lay on my head or chest. The feeling of weight and safety always brought me back to a controlled place where I could work through my anxiety, rather than be overwhelmed by it," she says.
"Also, when my depression was at the worst of the worst, and I had no will to even get out of bed, having a pet that needed to be fed and taken care of helped me force myself get up, and take care of myself as well," she says.
2. Polly, 45
"Whenever I felt like the world was a pile of crap, my first dog would remind me that it was okay to be silly, to have fun, to go outside and walk in the mountains, to run, to play, and to cuddle. But, most of all, she’d remind me that I am loved, fiercely," Polly says.
After two years without a pet, Polly realized her depression was much better when she had a dog. "I wasn’t getting outside as often as I use to, wasn’t as playful as I was, wasn’t as happy and missed cuddling. Pets are pretty awesome.
3. Whitney, 25
Whitney explains that both her emotional support dogs have played a huge role in keeping her safe, especially when she's experienced a mental health crisis. She says her oldest dog, Ellie, has literally stopped a suicide attempt. She says that her other dog, Kira, also regularly "intervenes during panic attacks," and stops her from hurting herself by hugging her.
4. Becca, 44
"Spaz, my cat, has saved my life on the regular since 2001," says Becca. "When anxiety or depression overwhelms [me], she reminds me to be present, get up and confront the next task in front of me. She's the funniest, most empathetic creature on any number of legs."
5. Elena, 23
"I have two emotional support rabbits, and they have exponentially increased my feeling of connection to the world," says Elena. "I live with PTSD and borderline personality disorder, and two of my biggest struggles are suicidal ideation, and self-harm. Knowing I have these two creatures depending on me, I am able to regulate my emotions far quicker, and remember the many reasons I have to live."
6. Anna, 29
Anna says, "My emotional support animal is my cat Morticia. Having her in my life helps so much on my bad days. Playing with her gives me a reason to get up, and move around."
She adds that, on days her depression is so bad she can't leave her bed, Morticia helps her feel grounded, and less alone. "Coming home to her is something to look forward to."
7. Beth, 24
"I have complex PTSD, and when I am having one of my recurrent nightmares, my cat wakes me up by meowing, curling up next to me, and purring. Many times, I am able to go back to sleep without the dream restarting if she stays close to me," Beth says.
"She has done this for years, without any kind of training. When I am going through periods in which I am particularly symptomatic, this provides me with more comfort than most other kinds of support I receive from anyone else — cat, or human."
8. Kenslee, 26
Kenslee says she got Gidget, her emotional support dog, just a few days after a stay in an eating disorder treatment center. "Having her with me helps remind me to nourish and take care of myself. Anytime I’m sad or frustrated, she immediately jumps up, is there to snuggle, and bring me joy, and love," she says.
Moreover, Kenslee explains that Gidget has helped her better cope with suicidal ideation. "I’ll get into that head space, and Gidget brings me back almost instantly," she explains, adding that, "She keeps me alive with her unconditional love, and her ability to be excited about anything."
9. Colin, 25
Colin says, "Between my mental illnesses and being autistic, I find interpersonal relationships difficult to maintain at times. However, my pets have actually helped me with my social skills, they love me unconditionally, and they make me feel less isolated."
10. Jordan, 23
"My service animal, Jack, has saved my life countless times in the year and a half since I’ve had him. On my bad days, he’s a reason to leave my bed — even if it’s just long enough to take him out, and make sure he has water," says Jordan. "On my good days, he helps me connect with others, and combat the isolation caused by my depression and bipolar disorder."
Pets can become the best of friends, and important members of our families. Having a friend to come home to at the end of a long day can be super therapeutic and comforting. For someone struggling with depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue, this is especially true. While pets aren't a substitute for medical attention and a mental health management plan, they can be enormously comforting in hard times.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.