When it comes to mental health struggles, pet ownership can take “heeling” to “healing.”
By adopting from an animal shelter, you are giving an animal a second chance at living its best life – and that feels good! But what often gets overlooked is the variety of ways owning a pet can help humans deal with existing mental health challenges and even ward off potential and emerging issues.
“It’s actually something we recommend to our clients,” said Wendy Weber, an adult outpatient therapist at WellStone in Huntsville.
According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), pets can be wonderful sources of support and relief from anxiety, depression, loneliness, stress and other mental health conditions.
Weber said people with mental health issues often have a hard time opening up because of the stigma surrounding mental health. That’s where pets come in, as they provide a judgment-free sounding board for their owners’ concerns.
“If someone has a pet, they have a confidant,” Weber said. “That pet is someone who will love them unconditionally.”
‘When you need them’
Emily, a former vet tech and zookeeper now living in Huntsville, struggled since childhood with poor time management, memory and impulse issues. She always felt an enormous amount of stress at school and in social situations, which would manifest in hyperhidrosis or excessive sweating.
At the age of 37, she was finally diagnosed with ADHD, depression and anxiety. Now, with proper care, medication and the companionship of two barn cats, 20 hens, a rooster named Frodo, a dog named Carrot, and a parrot named Flora, Emily feels more confident and in charge of her life.
“I’m a mess without having some sort of creature to love on and confide in,” she said. “They truly make a huge difference…they just know when you need them.”
Life’s greatest challenges
Some people think having to care for a pet and pick up after them is stress-inducing, but research shows owning a pet is actually a good stress reducer. HABRI reports owning a pet is linked to significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure in response to stress. For frontline and emergency response workers, this is especially critical, Weber said.
Eric, a Huntsville Fire & Rescue (HFR) communications manager, said fluctuations in shift work, being on-call 24/7 and the challenges of managing a critical component of HFR’s operations can be very stressful.
“Adjusting to shift work and balancing a ‘normal’ life is quite the challenge,” he said. “When you factor in a stressful job, trying to sleep during the day when you’re supposed to be awake, getting friends and loved ones to understand you must sleep weird hours to effectively do your job, trying to stay awake at night knowing how important it is for you to be alert and make split second decisions – all of that can take its toll mentally.”
He said one of the best parts of his day is coming home to his four dogs.
“It doesn’t matter if I’ve been gone five minutes or five days, they are always excited to see me,” Eric said. “Knowing you have four loyal companions, no matter what’s happening in the world, can really pull you through some of life’s greatest challenges.”
Mood and well-being
Companion animals not only affect mood and well-being, but they also create positive physiological changes in a person’s body chemistry, such as increasing natural feel-good hormones like oxytocin and contributing to a sense of calm, comfort and focus.
Weber said this is one of the ways owning a pet can also reduce negative thinking and the likelihood of suicidal thoughts.
“I have had suicidal ideation in the past,” said Alex, a southeast Huntsville resident and dedicated animal foster parent for years. “There have been times that my cats have been the only things that have prevented me from committing suicide.”
Alex lives with depression, Type 1 ADHD and rejection sensitive dysphoria. She has had pets of all kinds throughout her life, and her family includes four humans and eight cats. Alex is also currently fostering a litter of five kittens.
“They always seem to know when I’m at my lowest and will sit on my lap or curl up against me and just purr,” Alex said.
A sense of purpose
Owning and caring for a pet can provide a sense of purpose and reduce feelings of loneliness. Weber points out that pets can be especially comforting as forced isolation brought on by the pandemic still lingers for some immunocompromised individuals and the elderly.
And while the benefits of pets ownership are undeniable, so are the positive effects on the animals lucky enough to leave shelters for forever homes.
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“I understand how horrible abandonment feels, and I do what I can so that animals know it’s not their fault [that they wound up in less than ideal circumstances],” Alex said. “I gain a sense of accomplishment, pride and happiness being a stepping stone for pets in their path to a better situation.”
If you’re thinking about gaining a forever friend through pet adoption or fostering, Huntsville Animal Services has an assortment of animals of all ages in need of good homes. Visit them online or in-person at 4950 Triana Blvd. SW.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit the National Institute of Mental Health’s suicide prevention page.