Tag Archives: companion animals

Mindfulness in Fur

When you have furry members of your family who are ill or aging, you experience a pattern of variability. You have memories and you have the moment. You have good days and bad days. You have love and dread. Uncertainty becomes a fact; mindfulness on steroids.

As a psychologist, I have written frequently about the importance of having companion animals for mental health, companionship, and even physical well being, supported by a growing body of neuroscience research.  My offices are dog friendly. My own (now senior) companions, Sage (Doberman) and Asia (English Lab) have frequently been my gentle co-therapists for folks who are hurting.

As a mental health, mindfulness, and well-being clinician and researcher, I am exploring an audacious idea: Dogs are in many ways our mirror species. Unlike most animal-based models used to study aging, dogs are not in a lab, they share the same environment we do. That includes emotions: ours and theirs, physical health/exercise, how we sleep, routines and schedules, nutrition, attachment and love, social skills, dealing with new situations, separation and loss, education, medical care, stimulation and learning.

How to live in the moment. Dogs do this at warp speed. They have a lot to teach us.

Also see What Can We Learn from Aging Pets; and Mental Health Benefits of Having a Companion Animal.

Agape and Pet Loss

The New England Journal of Medicine reported in 2017 that after her dog died, a woman experienced “broken heart syndrome”—a condition in which the response to grief is so severe the person exhibits symptoms that mimic a heart attack, including elevated hormone levels that can be 30 times greater than normal.

Although grief over the loss of a cherished pet may be as intense and lengthy as when a significant person in our life dies, our process of mourning is quite different. Many of the societal mechanisms of social and community support are absent when we lose a companion animal. Few of us ask our employers for time off to grieve a beloved cat or dog because we fear doing so would paint us as emotionally weak. Studies have found that social support is a crucial ingredient in recovering from grief of all kinds. So, we are not only robbed of invaluable support systems when our pet dies, but we may even get messages overtly that it’s time to get over it.

People who have just lost a companion, or have a furry companion who is ill may find it extremely difficult to keep up with normal responsibilities, even though they are expected to keep performing as normal.

If your pet has been experiencing decline, whether age or disease-related, and you’ve been preparing for their passing, it can be helpful to have a “next steps” plan written down and posted somewhere that takes little effort to recall. In this acute phase, a lot of “easy” things to remember become much harder to recall, as our body is experiencing an intense emotional change and we struggle to grasp the new reality before us. Things around our home or yard may remind us of our loss. See also What Can We Learn from Companion Animals.

Integrate understanding friends or loved ones early on and notify them of your grief. Since grief is fluid, there are times that you may want to be alone with your emotions, and that’s ok. People may even say unhelpful things in an attempt to comfort you at some point such as, “we can get another one” or “at least they are in a better place.” In the acute phase, the most helpful thing is a calm presence and support. Even if there’s nothing more to be said, knowing that you can express your grief and are supported in your pain can make a world of difference.

If there is an unhealthy or no support system, there are online communities such as Pet Loss Grief Support Community at Rainbow Bridge or the Pet Loss Grief Support Message Board.

Mental health benefits of having a companion animal

Living with a companion animal is certainly good for your mental health, sometimes in surprising ways. A brief survey of recent studies:

– Within five minutes of playing with a pet, our stress hormones, especially cortisol goes down. Our levels of the “feel good” hormones: serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin go up. Companion animals increase happiness and decrease stress.

– In one study, a group of adult participants who scored high on stress measures, were told to pet a rabbit, a turtle, or a toy.  Touching the toy did not have any effect. However, stroking and playing with a rabbit or turtle reduced stress and anxiety. Interestingly, even people who said they did not like animals experienced the same benefits.

– The sensory act of stroking a pet lowers blood pressure, providing a health benefit in addition to mental health.

– Having a pet supports executive functioning development. Pets require planning, organizing, staying on schedule, prioritizing, immediate recall, sustaining effort, and task completion.

– Studies have shown that dogs can help calm hyperactive or aggressive children. In my own practice, both my dogs work with children with behavior disorders, and I have seen anecdotal evidence for this repeatedly.

– A large study by the CDC, in 2015, found that children who grew up with pets in the household had lower anxiety and stress levels. The study controlled for screen time, medical health, and physical activity. Having a pet is a protective mental health variable for children, extending through the teenage years.

– Individuals with companion animals are more mindful. Feeding, walking, veterinary care, schedules, are all prominent in the daily lives of pet owners.

– Our animals help us feel loved. One recent study asked teenagers to write about a time when they felt excluded or bullied. Then they were asked to do one of three things: write about their pet, write about their best friend, or draw a picture of their house or school. Writing about their pets was AS effective as writing about a close friend in reducing feelings of rejection.

-Companion animals support self care.  From getting up in the morning no matter what, to spending time outside in nature, to physical activity and exercise, to reminders of self-care: our animals require these things, and bring us along with them.

– Pets help people with chronic mental illness. A meta-analysis, which is also known as a synopsis of multiple studies, found significant evidence that having a pet benefits people with severe mental health conditions. One study was conducted at the University of Manchester in 2016 with patients who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression. 60% of the participants identified their pet as one of their strongest support systems. They reported that their animals distracted them from severe symptoms like suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and ruminative worry.

What can we learn from aging companion animals?

The Psychology of Aging

Like many of us, I have said goodbye to some of my most beloved companions. It inspired me to start a pet bereavement group, initially co-run with a veterinarian colleague. Over the years, it became something else, a reflection on life and our own mortality.

“Dog years” are fluid things; smaller breeds live longer than big ones. Emotionally, a domestic dog exists in a kind of perpetual adolescence, a long summer twilight of play, meals, naps, and happy routine in the company of parents who adore you. They will always be our babies.

The scientific term for this Peter Pan state is “neoteny” — when adults retain juvenile traits — and it’s one of many characteristics of older canines. Psychologist Daniel Promislow, who studies aging at the University of Washington, recently assembled scientists from various disciplines to join a Canine Longevity Consortium. With a grant from the National Institute on Aging, they’re laying the groundwork for the first national longitudinal study on aging in dogs.

Why? The researchers are exploring an audacious idea: Dogs are in many ways our mirror species. “Unlike most [animal] models used to study aging, dogs aren’t in a lab — they share the same environment we do,” Dr. Promislow writes.

Domestic dogs exhibit huge genetic variability, often eat processed food, sleep in our homes (actually on our beds) and enjoy access to humanlike health care. I have written elsewhere that American dogs and cats enjoy more healthcare, socialization, affection, comfort, and nutrition than many children the world over.

Increasingly, they also get sick and die like us: They acquire arthritis and heart disease and many of the same cancers; they grow frail, tired, and forgetful. Interestingly, in contrast to humans, dogs often do not show physical pain or distress until they have an advanced disease. Researchers at the veterinary program and med school at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech are researching why this applies to animals, and how it may be useful for human interventions. The medical definition is compression of morbidity: when significant deficits are not shown until close to the end.

Often companion animal lives are extended by expensive medical interventions. Dr. Promislow and his colleagues hope to discover what factors allow some dogs to better fend off these indignities.

The gerontologist Kenneth Doka has called the death of a pet “disenfranchised grief.” It’s a loss whose significance others don’t recognize. You post a sad Facebook update and go back to work. You speak with a couple of close friends who might understand. In general, the world wants us to go back to normal. Even though we have lost a family member.

In my group, past discussions have included what we learn from our aging pets.  An important theme has emerged:

Everything you do for a dog or cat to help them age well, you should do with them. So research and eat the best food you can afford. Go for a walk, even if it’s raining. Take a lot of naps. Keep your teeth clean and your breath fresh, so that the people you lick will not flinch. And when someone you love walks in through the door, even if it happens five times a day, go totally insane with joy.

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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