Stressed? Lonely? A Pet May Help

They’re warm, furry, loyal, playful, unconditionally loving and irresistibly adorable. Our pets are not only our friends, they’re an integral part of our lives. Whether part of a family or a loyal companion for someone who lives alone, pets are good for both our mental and physical health. Pets have the power to heal us. Even if we’re not yet sure how they accomplish this.

Stressed? Lonely? A Pet May Help
Andrew Walton

Pets Reduce Stress

Stress leads to a myriad of problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and even cancer. Stroking a pet’s fur has been shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure. A cat’s purr is soothing and has been shown to not only reduce heart rate and blood pressure, but also to create a calm feeling, almost akin to meditation. Decreased stress is an important aspect of living a healthy lifestyle, and our pets contribute to this just by being there.

Pets Combat Loneliness

For people who live alone, particularly those who have endured a recent loss, the companionship a pet provides is remarkable. In fact, I have heard from many patients after experiencing a major loss that their pet was a savior. Both dog and cat owners described being able to talk to their pet without judgment, and that their pet had an inexhaustible ear — being constant and consistent in their willingness to listen. Additionally, walking a dog pushes people to be physically active, as well as affording them the opportunity to interact with others.

Animals Can Help With Psychological Struggles

Dogs have been known to help people with disabilities. Whether a seeing-eye dog, a seizure-alert dog or a dog who can detect a drop in their owner’s blood sugar, dogs can be trained to help their human companions in miraculous ways. Many people who wouldn’t be able to live independently are able to do so because of their trained therapy animals.

Animals can also assist people who suffer from persistent psychological struggles. On numerous occasions, I have helped patients become approved for an emotional support animal (ESA). Both cats and dogs can help alleviate psychological distress through support and affection. People suffering from anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder report a decrease in distress once they have an ESA. These animals provide ongoing and unconditional support, companionship and a judgment-free ear.

Additionally, patients have reported that because of their ESA, they found a renewed sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, someone to take care of.

The unconditional affection and loyalty that pets provide, combined with the natural release of oxytocin, has helped patients with abuse histories learn to develop a sustaining emotional bond and develop trust. Many people with histories of abuse have difficulty trusting and forming emotional bonds with others. The relationship with an ESA can help people learn to form a bond when they were otherwise unable to do so.

Oxytocin, the hormone known for its involvement in bonding, as well as engendering feelings of love, not only helps people who are distressed and/or having difficulty bonding with others, it stimulates positive feelings for all pet owners. When we bond, we naturally feel less alone. The unconditional love we feel with our pets creates a sense of well-being, too.

Pets Have Refined Intuition

Our pets have a refined intuition, one which could save our lives. Take Miranda, a petite 69-year-old who came into therapy following a mastectomy. Wanting to process what she had gone through, she explained, “My dog saved my life.” Miranda’s dog had nudged her breast — relentlessly. He had been so persistent and the behavior so unusual, she took herself to the doctor, who discovered her breast cancer. Now cancer free, she believed her dog knew.

This isn’t the only story I have heard suggesting that our pets know things, sense things. Malcolm, 65, reported that while sick in bed with a horrible flu and suffering with chills, his dog brought over his robe and slippers. Then he nestled his body up next to Malcolm, placing his paw across his body in a seeming attempt to keep Malcolm warm. Another man, Albert, reported that his dog kept trying to trip him, and he finally succeeded. Albert fell. Fearing he broke something he went to the doctor. An operable bone tumor was found in Albert’s leg. He received surgery that saved his life.

Cats and dogs have heightened auditory and olfactory senses. Could these instances be explained by that or is it something more? Perhaps all animals and humans have a sixth sense, a sense of heightened perception beyond what can be conceived within the five senses. People report intuitions all the time, many times accurately. But we often miss things too.

Perhaps animals’ sixth sense isn’t clouded by doubt and rationality. Their actions are based more on intuition and instinct, without interference from intellectual dissection. We may never know exactly how our pets know things about us, but it is clear they are finely attuned to us, as well as our shared environment. We should never underestimate their importance as loving supportive parts of our lives. Or their tremendous power to heal us.

Editor’s note: names were changed to protect anonymity.

About the Writer

Jacqueline Simon Gunn

Jacqueline is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master’s degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.

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