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Petting Your Way Through the Blues

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As a therapist, I work in a unique setting that invites not only my clients (children and adults) into a serene office -- their pets are invited too!

girl lying down with dog

Maggie Baumann: I work in a pet-friendly therapy office and I witness the healing powers of pets with their owners every day.

One 13-year-old girl I work with is often resistant to talking about her family problems when she comes in on her own. But when she brings her three-year-old brown Lab with her, she is animated and more free to open up about her feelings.

I had another male adult client who I saw relax and let go of his defensiveness to his issues when he brought his 135-pound female Rottweiler with him to his appointment. As he spoke, he stroked his dog -- and it allowed him to reduce his anxiety about the painful topics we were discussing.

When stress hits home, use the healing power of your own pets.

The point is: Animals can often be our safest and closest healers. And you don't need to go to a pet-friendly therapy office to receive the benefits.

Research on the bond of attachment validates what pet lovers already know -- that the bond we share with our pet(s) can be even stronger than the bond we share with people. There is this empowering sense of unconditional love you get from your pet, and that can instantly improve your mood.

Pets improve both mood and health.

Interacting with your pet can provide many benefits for everyone in the family, from infants to seniors. You can feel less anxious and less stressed in as little as 15 minutes when spending time with your dog or cat, or even watching fish swim.

Physical changes happen in your body that can improve your mood and decrease stress. The production of the body's feel-good chemical called serotonin -- a common neurotransmitter found in the brain -- is increased through pet play.

Research has also shown that interacting with your pet can lower your blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and reduce your risk for heart disease.

When someone is battling depression, many therapists often prescribe playing or walking your pet (if your pet is mobile) as a way of dealing with and recovering from depression.

Pets offer 24/7 on-call support.

No matter what time of day or night it is, pets are always ready to listen or play. Stroking your animal's fur or skin can provide you with a soothing tactile experience. Taking care of your pet and grooming it are effective ways to get your focus off your stress and take you out of yourself ... and this helps you feel better about yourself in the long run.

Pets can have a calming effect on people of all ages. If your toddler is fussy, try getting your young one to safely interact with your pet -- touching the fur, making funny faces at the pet. If your elementary-age child has had a bad day at school, offer to sit down with your child on the floor to play with your pet -- your child may more easily open up about why the day has been so difficult.

Kids with ADHD can benefit too. Taking charge of the tasks necessary in caring for a pet can help a child learn to plan and gain positive responsibility. Pets need to play, and playing with a pet is an excellent way for a child with ADHD to release excess energy. And since the bond between a pet and a child is unconditional love, pets help improve self-esteem in ADHD children.

Even for busy moms, when stress hits (and your animal is movable), take your pet out for a walk or run to let off steam. Hopefully your partner can take on supervision of the kids so you can get out to feel better.

What happens if you don't own a pet?

If you don't have a pet, consider getting one. If you can't afford one, visit a friend who has a pet. Another option is volunteering with your family at your local animal shelter, where you can play with the rescued animals that could benefit from your interaction.

Some people may have allergies to certain pets, such as cats or dogs. The selection of a pet that can bring you improved health can be any type of pet, including a parrot or any other type of bird. Birds have been shown to be loyal, loving, and good companionship pets.

Stress overload? Seek professional help, when needed.

Although a pet can do wonders for lowering your stress and improving your mood, know when it's time to seek help from a professional therapist. If life's stresses are unhealthy or dangerous to your health or to anyone in your family, you need additional support. Of course, pets aren't meant to replace therapists, just complement them in treating people seeking relief from many common problems including depression, chronic pain, and anxiety disorders.

As for my work with pets in the therapy office, I have only found positive benefits. Yes, I find a few loose dog hairs on the couch sometimes, but our offices are cleaned daily, so no worries there. Now, if someone brings in a pet snake, I am not sure how I would react ... but that hasn't crossed my path yet.

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3 comments so far | Post a comment now
Marti October 3, 2009, 8:25 AM

What a wonderful article! I totally agree that pets are great for medicinal purposes. When I would get sad, my Irish Setter was always such a comfort to me.

Kathleen Fuller PhD October 5, 2009, 10:28 AM

Great article. I agree that animals can often be our safest and closest healers.
I’d like to add that you can do one practical, down-to-earth thing each day with love, while asking
inwardly to be open to a new spiritual awareness or an answer to a question you have asked.

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