Pets and the Mentally Ill

Anyone who owns a dog will tell you that their animal is a great comfort and companion to them during good times and bad. Dogs do not judge or criticize or nag or betray; all they want, dog owners affirm, is your love and nothing else. (Although they also like it when they’re fed regularly, no doubt!)

Psychologists and psychiatrists have known for a long time that people with difficult mental challenges often respond well to a pet such as a dog or a cat, or even a goldfish. Patients who suffer deep mental trauma for whatever reasons frequently find that an animal that never threatens or analyzes is a better medicine than opioids or statins.

A recent study in the Journal of Medical Statistics reaffirms this anecdotal evidence. After studying a large group of patients under the care of mental health specialists for painful and lasting mental instability, the control group that either already had a pet animal or was given one to take care of, responded 47% better to counseling and therapy than their counterparts who did not have a pet of any kind.

Gina took part in the project, and was given a cocker spaniel to raise. After seven months she reported: “Initially I was very apprehensive about the responsibility. Because of my terrible mood swings I’d often let my house plants wither away and die because I just couldn’t find the energy or desire to even water them. My therapist suggested that I give my cocker a name right away to help me realize he depended on me for his life. So I called him Sparky, and the joy he’s brought into my life can’t be exaggerated. I love the little critter! I also enjoy spoiling my dog because it makes me feel good. Since he’s been with me I’ve been able to reduce the amount of some of my medications, and I feel like I now have a wonderful new friend.”

Dr. Junah Pradesh, of the Wasatch Mental Health Clinic in Salt Lake City, says “The deeply disturbed mental patient can often find the acceptance and affection he or she craves from a pet, instead of from family and friends. Unable to function on a social level that allows them to interact reasonably with other human beings, many mentally ill patients find the will to keep on living and to improve from simple interactions with a dog or cat — feeding them, petting them, even cleaning up after them!”

The Journal study goes on to explain that one of the most encouraging results happened with elderly patients with severe senile dementia. Usually ‘warehoused’ in nursing homes and forgotten by their family and friends, these patients often went into a catatonic state and refused to interact with anyone, as well as refusing all nourishment. But when several border collies were introduced into the nursing home in the study and allowed to roam freely throughout the facility a majority of the dementia patients came out of their catatonic state in order to pet and talk to the collies for up to an hour at a time. They also began to develop an appetite and to eat normally again.

“It’s heartwarming to know that such a simple thing can help in the most complicated of cases” concludes Dr. Pradesh.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.