Now that I have lured you in with an absolutely adorable picture of a golden retriever, I would like to introduce you to Butler. Although he is not technically my dog (belongs to my landlord), I have been in his life every day since he was two months old. He just turned six years old, so I’ll let you do the math. During that time, he grew a strong attachment to me. When my landlord goes away for business, I am the one often bestowed with the responsibility of taking care of this cutie pie. Ultimately, I became like a second owner. If my landlord isn’t home, you can find Butler right by my side or laying down next to my bed. See exhibit A.
As much as he depends on us, Butler has been a godsend for me as well. On those mornings when I wake up and dread getting out of bed, seeing his wagging tail waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs brings a moment of joy. Coming after a long day of work and being greeted by Butler wagging his whole butt with a toy in his mouth brings me back to the moment. Sometimes just rolling him over on his back and scratching his belly reminds me to savor the simpler times. Pets are a great benefit to our mental and emotional health.
Being Present. I sometimes envy animals for being able to remain focused on the moment. They aren’t thinking about what happened yesterday. They aren’t worried about the bills due tomorrow. The focus remains on fulfilling their basic needs (food, water, rest, getting out attention). It is definitely a lesson many of us humans could use.
Humor. One of my all-time favorite coping strategies is to watch funny animal videos. Just like us, animals have a tendency to act goofy from time to time. A puppy chasing its tail. A cat being a total dick nonchalantly pushing a glass off a table. A fish obsessed with its reflection in the aquarium glass. Although we can’t totally wrap our heads around why the behave a particular way, it is sure as hell amusing.
Safe Attachment. It is nice knowing that we have a companion when we come home. A friend who does not talk back or judge us. They just genuinely enjoy our company and attention.
Physiological Benefit. Did you know that petting a fluffy animal for five minutes can significantly reduce levels of stress? Being with your pet produces beneficial hormones like oxytocin and raises levels of neurotransmitters directly associated with emotion (serotonin and dopamine). Pets make us happy.
Motivation. We all have days where we don’t want to get out of bed. I look over, and there is Butler wagging his tail with a bone in his mouth. Or maybe I hear Karen and Susan (my guinea pigs) squealing in the other room wanting to speak to the manager. It’s enough to get me out of bed knowing that they need me. Depending on the type of pet (if you have a dog or other walkable critter), they could provide you with motivation to get outside and enjoy some exercise.
Responsibility. Taking care of a pet requires a lot of time and hard work. It definitely helps an individual develop a sense of responsibility. Pets need to be fed, watered, cleaned, possibly let outside, and given plenty of attention. Even “easier” pets, like fish, people don’t think require a lot of effort. Tell me that after you do the weekly water changes, clean off the algae, and switch out the filters.
Along those same lines, you will need develop some sort of a routine to care for your pet. How often do you need to feed them? How often do they need to be let outside? How frequently do I need to clean their cage?
On a side note, it also forces you to be fiscally responsible for the pet. The pet itself isn’t often what costs you money. It is all of the pet care that follows including vet care, food, setting up their environment, toys, etc.
Sense of Purpose. For some people, their pet is all they have. As a mental health counselor, I have had more than one individual tell me that their pets (literally dogs, cats, fish) were the only reason they did not complete suicide. A recent quote from a teenage client of mine, “I kept wondering who would feed my cats.” These pets usually spend the majority or all of their lives with us. We see them grow and develop.
I have always loved my pets and animals, but I definitely gained more insight into how important being a pet owner can be for someone. It makes so much more sense as to why some people consider their pets as family.
-The Caring Counselor