How Companion Animals Can Help

We’ve all heard the phrase, “A dog is a man’s best friend.” If you’ve ever had a pet, you know what this expression means firsthand. Whether it’s a dog, cat, bird, or another animal, pets provide an opportunity to bond and connect. They become treasured family members and offer support when it feels like no one else is there.

For someone who is struggling with a mental health condition or addiction recovery, companion animals are especially helpful. A study by University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, found that 60 percent of participants who consider pets as part of their social networks, say pets are as important as close family members. The study, which was published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, depicts isolation as a common struggle. When a companion animal is introduced, the feeling of being alone can vanish. Your pet becomes a center of support because it’s always there. With those in addiction recovery, having a pet creates an ability to love and count on others.

Another thought to consider is that some people can relate to a companion animal, whereas they simply can’t relate as well to other people. A book that chronicles human-animal interactions, Saved: Rescued Animals and the Lives They Transform, says the bond between humans and animals has nothing to do with intellect. Instead, it’s about an emotional connection that’s unparalleled in the amount and quality of comfort it provides.

Simply put: Having a companion animal feels good, and it’s a healthy form of stimulation. It increases levels of relaxation since pets have the ability to lower your blood pressure. It releases brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which are mood-elevating. Pet ownership also brings reduced feelings of loneliness (as noted earlier), sadness, anxiety, guilt, hostility, and stress, all of which are negative emotions and counterproductive to anyone struggling with a mental health condition or in addiction recovery.

Routine is another benefit. It might be tempting to hit snooze to get a little extra sleep before work, but if you have a dog that needs to be walked, you’re obligated to get up and get your day started. This helps to provide a sense of purpose and structure to your life. For those in addiction recovery particularly, this breaks the typical norm of only thinking about oneself. Caring for an animal is considered skill building for those in treatment, and it rewards accountability and responsibility.

If you or someone you know is considering getting a companion animal, here are some tips for first-time owners on choosing and caring for a pet: 

  • Choose a pet that will live comfortably in your environment. If you have a house with a large backyard or plenty of outdoor space, a large dog, for example, would do well. If you live in an apartment, think about the space constraints and if that’s appropriate for the pet you may select. You will also need to see if your apartment allows pets and what costs may be associated with pet ownership.
  • Think about how much time you can dedicate to your pet, whether it’s playing fetch, going on a walk, or giving it a bath. Pets need a lot of attention and care.
  • Plan out your expenses to provide the best care for your pet. Your companion animal will need food, grooming, and access to routine visits to the vet, as well as medicine when it gets sick.
  • Select a vet that’s a good fit for both you and your companion animal. Aside from a traditional vet, you may also want to consider holistic pet care. Oftentimes, these are home-like clinic settings, which reduce stress for both you and your pet, fostering a connection with the practitioner.

Whether you’re struggling with mental health issues or addiction, a companion animal offers many benefits. Companion pets can remove negative emotions like feelings of loneliness and stress. If you think you may be ready to take in a new pet, make sure you’re familiar with all your options and new responsibilities.

Author: Jessica Brody (OurBestFriends.org)