How Pets Can Help a Survivor in the Healing Process
By Emilie Trepanier
I was stuck in bed for about a week – other than when I needed to get up to grab some ramen noodles or go to the bathroom, of course. I was depressed, past traumas eating away at my mind. Luckily, I had my big cat, Virginia, glued to my hip the entire week. She purred, trying to comfort my sad heart, she stayed close to remind me I wasn’t alone, and she meowed back when I did open my mouth to speak my woes.
Months later, I was sick in bed, suffering from the flu for the first time. Good thing Ms. Virginia shared my pillow with me, purring soothingly and not minding the loud humidifier blowing in our faces.
Every time I was hit with a random depressive episode, or a wave of sadness, I could count on hearing that low meow from my late cat and a heavy plop on my bed, assuring me I was never truly alone.
As I write this article, my toy poodle is whining at me to put him on my lap, and my beautiful Siberian kitten has wandered into the dining room, meowing at me and hopping on the table until sufficed by loving words and bum scratches. It’s like they know I’m writing about them and reminiscing on how grateful I am. That’s the foundation of how animals can heal broken hearts and sick minds: they just seem to know.
The wondrous thing about pets is that they truly live to support us. All we do is feed them, provide them a place to sleep and use the bathroom, and give them love from time to time. The effort I put into my animals is minuscule in comparison to the paramount relief their service has provided me.
Animals as pain relief is no secret. For years, service animals have visited patients at hospitals or those living in retirement homes. According to Web MD, 74% of pet owners said having a pet improved their mental health. In the same article, clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo, Ph.D., is quoted saying “Animals pick up on when their owners are distressed.” Animals have a way of sensing all kinds of emotions, and they tend to respond accordingly.
Unconditional love is something all humans need, and something some trauma survivors feel they don’t deserve. Animals love unconditionally, which aids in loneliness. In addition to that, I know that service on my part is a sure way to lighten my spirit. Most animals require some sort of schedule; whether it’s your cat getting playful in the early hours of the morning, or your dog counting on an evening stroll. Not only are you keeping a schedule, but you are serving another breathing thing.
According to Domestic Shelters, adopting an animal doesn’t only aid or prevent depression, it also lowers blood pressure and decreases overall stress. The article points out that having a furry friend “is more likely to be met with smiles than sighs” in comparison to eating better or hitting the gym.
Kathy McCoy, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist, is quoted in this article. She said she found that integrating her cats as part of her therapy caused patients to open up and talk more freely. “Pets provide a non-judgmental sounding board,” McCoy said. I can vouch for that; the short conversation I had with my cat this morning lifted my spirits not only because I could speak freely, but also because it was ridiculously cute how he seemed to think about his response after every statement I made, and then meowed back thoughtfully like he understood. McCoy even wrote a book on the subject, called Purr Therapy: What Timmy & Marina Taught Me About Love, Life and Loss. McCoy said adopting a pet or spending time with animals is a tool survivors of domestic violence specifically can use as well.
“A lot of people underestimate how emotionally draining starting a new life can be,” McCoy said. Domestic violence survivors should wait until they are safe from their abusers before adopting a new pet, and this new companion can really help with the transition of new life.
McCoy said adopting a pet can help survivors in three important ways:
- Feeling Safe – Having a watchful eye during times of distress is somehow comforting and can help you feel safe. On top of that, having an animal that can sense sounds and movements before we do can notify us of danger (or remind us of no danger, when we are feeling anxious).
- Making Friends – I follow a #GreyHoundsOfInstagram hashtag on Instagram because I hope to one day rescue a greyhound. What I’ve seen from this is a community of greyhound lovers, coming together to support one another. Making friends within this community is effortless. I’ve made friends at dog parks and dog beaches, and bringing up your cat at any event is a sure-fire way to get another person to start gushing about their own cat or guinea pig, rat and more.
- Comforting Kids – Not much is more beautiful than watching the connection between an animal and a child. After leaving an abuser, an animal can help comfort the little ones in ways people just can’t seem to reach.
Having rescued three animals in my adult life, two of which came from traumatic backgrounds, my animals both validate and inspire me. If they could go through trauma and still live to love me, I can love me, too. Life gets better, and animals show us that through their continued adaptability and zest for life despite facing harsh conditions.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.
For more insight on what we can learn from our pets, check out these articles: