Mental health and companion animals

One of the founders of psychology, Sigmund Freud, elucidated the idea that talking about your feelings, experiences, and emotional states is mentally therapeutic. But who should you talk to? Often it is a therapist, friend, parent, teacher, or minister. According to Freud, just letting it out, ventilating emotion, has a therapeutic effect. In my practice, I have observed that talking to a companion animal may help deal with stress, anxiety, and depression. In my office, I have two highly trained dogs, and on many occasions, adults and children who had difficulty opening up can often speak more freely with my dogs, or their own, by their side. I have one room in my suite of offices, that is completely pet friendly, and others for those who have allergies.

While some folks have family members who are understanding and trusted enough to confide in when they have emotional trouble, others can have difficulty venting feelings. Proponents of animal-assisted therapy suggest that your confidant in times of stress does not have to be human, and that a dog could serve some of the same function as a therapist or sympathetic family member if they allow you to open up and discuss your feelings. I have several clients and friends who have confided in me that their companion animal, usually a dog or a cat, helps them get up in the morning, even if they don’t want to get out of bed, or they are having a bad day.

I recently came across two empirical studies which suggest that we do tend to talk to our dogs when we are emotionally stressed, and that some individuals may actually prefer to confide in pets rather than humans who may be family members.

One study comes from Cambridge University. The researchers analyzed data from a 10-year longitudinal study of children’s social and emotional development, led by Dr. Claire Hughes at the Center for Family Research. The research study found that children who suffered from stressful events in their lives, such as bereavement, divorce, instability, financial hardship,and physical illness were more likely to have stronger relationships with their dogs or other pets than with their peers. What was most interesting is that girls were more likely than boys to talk to their pets and confide in them about their problems.

In a second study, Dr. Aislinn Evans-Wilday at the University of Lincoln, England, looked at adults’ relationship to their dogs. The survey targeted eight different emotions. One interesting finding was that the data again confirmed the gender difference. Female participants in this study were much more likely to talk about their emotional state to companion animals. In general, women were more willing to confide in a pet about feelings of depression, jealousy, sadness, disappointment, and apathy. Overall, the data from these studies seem to reach similar conclusions: When adults and children experience negative emotions, they may tend to seek comfort by confiding in their companion animals, and this effect seems to be stronger for females than for males.

Pets are therapy.

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