Pets Help People Manage the Pain of Serious Mental Illness

7 minute read

Most pet owners will tell you that their animal companion comforts them during the rough times and sustains them when they feel like they can’t go on. This is even more so with people who suffer from serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Loyalty and companionship in pets may be as or more effective than support from another human being.  What exactly is it that makes pet such good therapists when it comes to mental illness?

What Research Shows

Many mentally ill patients live alone and do not have much contact with the healthcare system with little human support and little interactions altogether. This can cause isolation but when there is a pet at home, the dynamic changes.

For these individuals, having a pet always at home waiting for them is something to look forward to, someone always happy to see them and ready to listen to their daily events.

Studies involving people with serious long-term mental illness found that most of them considered their pets to be part of their social circle. In fact, when asked who was closest to them in their social networks, patients listed their pets in the same line as close family.

Others listed their pets along the same lines of closeness as their social workers. Many of these patients felt a deep emotional connection with their pets, which help them through their daily struggles.

What the research revealed was that these individuals felt isolated from the world because of their mental illness. They often feel as though there is a deep chasm between themselves and other people, specifically when it comes to understanding what they go through each day.  

A dog in a flower field

People with mental illness often shrink their social groups because of this and alienate themselves. Having a pet fills this void, allowing them to feel and receive affection without needing to understand the disorder.

Why Pets Are Better Than People

Pets do not look at the scars or make note of the medications you must take each day. Human beings by nature have a need to understand things, so when in a relationship with a person who has a mental illness, there can be miscommunication because of a lack of understanding.

It may be difficult for a non-mentally ill person to understand the daily life of a person with a serious mental illness. And this is what causes the divide in social connections. With a pet, there is affection and support without trying to understand the disease.

Having a pet also helps to keep patients from withdrawing completely. They have a routine they need to stick to and are required to care for, feed, clean, and maintain suitable living conditions for a pet.  

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Having to walk a dog gets people out of the house and can lead to passing greetings and possible interactions. The structure that is given to daily life when a pet is involved gives patients meaning each day.  There is a sense of purpose, where they may have previously felt isolated and not wanting to do anything.

Additionally, studies have found that having a pet prevents many mentally ill patients from committing suicide. They are aware that the pet depends on them and needs them, so this sense of duty and responsibility to another life keeps them from suicidal thoughts.

For this and many other reasons, therapists are now incorporating pets into care plans for mental illness. If the presence of a pet in someone’s life can prevent suicidal thoughts, then there is a need to research this further.

A senior woman playing with her dog in the beach

Animals for Therapy

The rise of animal therapy has increased as research shows that pet companionship is a proven antidote to anxiety and loneliness. Animals have a way of making us smile and listening to whatever we say. Outside of helping with mental illness, the presence of a pet has been shown to provide numerous overall health benefits, too.  

The simple act of petting an animal results in lowering blood pressure. In fact, studies have found that with people in high stress careers, pet ownership lowers blood pressure more effectively than prescribed hypertension medications.

1. Specifically owning a dog results in more exercise for members of the entire family.

2. A greater sense of calm among Alzheimer’s patients has been noted when a pet is around. These individuals have fewer anxious outbursts and those who were previously lethargic tended to become more attentive.  

3. People with allergies produce more antibodies which can cause inflammation in the airways (asthma) or the skin (eczema). Exposure to pet dander and saliva during infancy reduces the chances of allergic reactions developing during adulthood.  

4. Pets lower the levels of cortisol in our bodies which reduces stress. This not only helps us to have a calmer approach to life, but benefits our cardiovascular health.  

5. Along with lowering blood pressure and cholesterol and improving outlook, pet owners generally suffer fewer colds.  

A woman visiting her friend at the hospital with her dog

Dogs as Diagnosticians

Dogs have recently been found to act as ‘early warning’ detection agents for epileptic seizure. The discovery of this ability to detect disease has led to the development of several organizations that train dogs to help people with life-threatening medical conditions.

Dogs are currently being trained to even detect cancer. The reason dogs are used over other pets is because their sense of smell is over 10,000 times more accurate than that of other animals.  The important fact to note is that animals can help with our physical and mental health in more ways than one.

The Bottom Line

Many of the patients already studied reported that their pets often know when they need help and are ready to provide it, without being asked. This unconditional support is valuable to those suffering from serious mental illness.

There is a sense of purpose to the relationship because the pet needs them and they need their pet. There are no complications like those involved in human social interactions; it is a relationship built on the simple fact of need. When you remove the higher thought processes and emotions, the simple bond is the strongest and in the case of mental illness; a real lifesaver.

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