Psychologist, psychotherapist, writer and broadcaster Corrine Sweet explores the impact that pets can have on our psychological well-being. Read on to find out more.
Pets and Psychological Well-being: Pets can make you happy.
“As I sit writing this blog, my two tabby/Burmese cats, Mackerel and Cappuccino, are sitting beside me on the desk, like furry bookends. One is purring quietly and other is licking her paws. It is bliss.
I am not alone in loving to live with my two pets. They greet me at the door when I come home (yes, really, cats do that, not just dogs). They cuddle up beside me on the bed, bookending me again from either side and they hop up on my lap anytime, anywhere. They follow me into the garden when I prune or have breakfast, stretching out in the sun, yawning. They are my feline shadows.
It has long been established that domestic animals can give us a great deal of solace and happiness, especially as we age. I am fairly newly divorced, and my daughter is at University, so the ‘empty nest’ has not been so horribly empty, thanks to my cat companions.
Whether you are in midlife, like me, or later life, a pet can create an enormous sense of comfort, especially after a loss, a marital breakdown or a change of circumstance. Pets make a house, a home. Even the humble goldfish, or tropical aquarium, can soothe nerves and create a sense of peace.
Dogs are the most obviously gregarious of pets, and people bond with them, emotionally and psychologically, as they demand regular exercise, feeding and care. Stories abound of dogs sniffing out their owners’ illnesses, or being able to sense their mood swings. For owners, this sense of relationship can offer a valuable service in lonely or difficult times.
There are physical benefits too.
The benefit of having to walk a dog or dogs regularly means older owners have to get out the house, get some cardio-vascular stimulation and actually chat to people in the park. Late love may even bloom over doggie stories and antics!
Stroking a cat or dog can also lower our rising blood-pressure, and stir oxytocin and endorphins in our blood streams. This means having a pet, and cuddling or stroking it, can actually improve our own sense of wellbeing. Oxytocin is the same hormone released through breast-feeding or kissing: it makes us feel good.
Cats, dogs, horses, goats, rabbits, even small pets, like hamsters and goldfish, will respond to good, humane treatment. It gives us a sense of connection, as humans, despite the objects of our love being animal. We are human animals after all.
The relationship people have with their pets is not to be ridiculed or maligned. It is true many of us choose pets (dogs especially) who look like us. But this is really part of our need to have a family, a community, somewhere to belong. It gives us a sense of place, and a sense of meaning and purpose, in life.
Of course, some people feel they can’t have a pet as they can’t face the loss. It is true that loss in inevitable, just as for Shula in The Archers, who is about to lose her favourite horse. Pets’ lifespans are simply shorter and we have to accept we will feel grief at some point.
However, the pleasure and meaning we get in the present far outweighs the grief we will experience. If we can accept that our dear pets die, we can grieve, and simply start again – after a decent spate of mourning – with a new puppy or kitten. Don’t feel bad about loving your animals, or doting on them. I think it is well-established that the psychological benefits far outweigh the stray hairs and poop scoops.
I had a wonderful rescue cat called Splat, who simply moved in with me, many years ago. He chose me. I’d always been allergic to cats, and found that now as an adult, my allergy had reduced. Splat got me through a difficult time in my life, nursing my parents to their end.
When he died, the whole family grieved, but after a few months we missed the companionship and so took on our two furry rascals, who had been abandoned by their mother outside a dry cleaners. They were three weeks old and barely filled the palm of my hand.
Thirteen years later, they are still with me and central to my family life. I send pictures of them to my daughter at Uni. She even pays a £1 to charity once a month to pet puppies, as the University understands the need for animals in students’ lives as a de-stress factor. The first thing my daughter does, when she comes home, is rush towards the cats and pick them up: they are family after all.
About Corinne Sweet.
Corinne Sweet is a well-established and respected writer, broadcaster, psychologist and psychotherapist. Corinne has a long journalistic background, as ‘agony aunt’ in magazines, newspapers and on radio and TV. She was a Big Brother Psychologist and trained on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’. She still appears regularly on TV and Radio as an expert. Corinne has published over sixteen books, including self-help titles, such as How to say No (Amazon), The Mindfulness Journal and The Anxiety Journal (Pan Macmillan). She has been a teacher and university lecturer, and campaigner for women’s rights, is a screenwriter, and is currently Chair of the Books Committee of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. Corinne works as an individual and couples psychotherapist in the Barnsbury Therapy Rooms in North London.