While we all know pets are cute, fun and cuddly, they can also have a much more important role in the lives of those suffering through mental illness or addiction recovery.
Research shows that companion animals are a central part of the support networks for those dealing with mental illness. One study showed that animals provided participants with a deep emotional bond that wasn’t available from friends or family members.
“You know, so in terms of mental health, when you just want to sink into a pit and just sort of retreat from the entire world, they force me, the cats force me to sort of still be involved with the world,” one participant in the study said.
Another study showed more benefits of pet ownership, including increased empathy, closer connections, family replacement and individual empowerment. Some participants even said the extra work it takes to care for the animal is therapeutic. “It sounds funny, but I’ve had this dog for about eight years now, she’s 18 pounds, and she’s willful and demanding, and takes a lot of attention, and I think she’s been therapeutic for me.”
For those coping with addiction recovery, pets can help stabilize the mind in a way that other treatments can’t. Having a pet can help the addict calm his or her mind, reducing the stress that can trigger a setback. Connecting with a pet can help us deal with life’s challenges without turning to drugs or alcohol.
If you’re considering getting a pet to help with your mental illness or addiction recovery, do some research first. Your lifestyle, finances and home should all help determine your ability to have a pet. If you need a more laid-back friend, one who doesn’t require as much work, you might consider a cat or caged animal, such as a hamster or rabbit.
Cats are excellent in-home companions. They like to play as much as they like to cuddle, and they don’t need to be taken outside for bathroom breaks. But they can do serious damage to furniture, carpet and wood, so make sure you get several scratching surfaces for your pal. Cats also like to climb, so a cat tree would be an excellent perch for your new buddy. Make sure to get lots of toys to keep him entertained: Fishing toys (where you are the fisherman) are a great way to play with your cat.
If you’re an active person who would like to go places with your pet, consider a dog. Dogs are some of the best cuddlers around, but they also need lots of work. You have to house train your dog (if he isn’t already house-trained), and take him out several times a day — sometimes in the middle of the night. But you can also take him on long walks and runs, which helps you both get lots of exercise. Plus, walking your dog is a great way to meet new friends because people love to talk to you about your pet.
Caged pets, such as hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, etc., can be fun to have around the house, too. Some are more likely to cuddle with you than others, but you might just enjoy watching your buddy run on a hamster wheel. Rabbits can be litter trained, but they also tend to chew on things if you’re not paying attention. Cages need to be regularly cleaned out, but otherwise, these are generally easy animals to care for. You can even get a hamster ball so your pal can run around the floor without getting lost.
No matter which animal you decide to adopt, do your homework first. There is a seemingly unlimited amount of information online about caring for pets, and a vet can also answer your questions. Check with your local shelters first — they often have many types of animals just waiting for a home, some of which are already trained.
When you get a pet, your whole life changes. Your companion animal trusts you implicitly to care for his every need. In return, you regain the self-confidence that you can not only care for yourself, but for another.
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