26 May 2022

Never forget the healing power of pets

Clinical Psychiatry

Rescuing an animal can turn two lives around – I've seen it for myself.


Paul is in his mid-50s and over the last couple of years has become, somewhat surprisingly one of my star patients. Really inspiring. 

When I first met Paul, about eight years ago he was quite floridly psychotic. He had a long history of mental illness that had been given many labels from traumatic brain injury to schizophrenia.  

He was under the care of a psychiatrist and a mental health service, and was only seeking my help for some concurrent physical issues. Nonetheless, it was very apparent that he was psychologically struggling – paranoid delusions, pressure of speech and heightened anxiety were a feature of his demeanour at every presentation. Over time, undoubtedly thanks to his psychiatric care, he stabilised. 

Fast-forward to now. Paul has a full-time job. After not being able to manage any employment, for over 20 years, Paul was given an opportunity to take on this job, originally part-time, two years ago. He has not only managed but he has flourished to the point where he is now full-time and supervising others. Apparently even his Centrelink case workers have given him star status. 

There is no doubt, professional help and medication played a major role in Paul’s improvement, but do you know what I think was the major turning point in his road to success?  

Two years ago, Paul got a rescue dog – Toby. 

This energetic little Heinz-57 appears to have been pivotal in Paul’s life. Whether Toby taught Paul responsibility or whether he just gave Paul confidence that he could manage this responsibility is a moot point. Both Paul and I agree Toby’s arrival played a key role in Paul turning his life around. 

This is probably my most extreme example of the well-known fact that pets can have positive health benefits. I’m sure you, like me will have dozens of similar stories where a dog, cat or other living creature has helped a patient with anxiety, grief, depression, ADHD or a myriad of other mental illnesses, let alone have them as a motivator to exercise and living a healthier lifestyle. 

As much as there is robust evidence to underpin the value of pets and pet-ownership in overall well-being, in the real world I feel this therapeutic option is often ignored. It’s not as though we are pet-averse in this country, in fact Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world – with three in five households owning a pet (and that’s probably increased over the Covid years).  

It is just that it is not generally seen as a therapy for those in need. 

Not that we should be handing out kittens and puppies at pharmacies but perhaps we could, in some real way, support our general practice patients who could probably benefit from having to care for a pet and appreciate their unconditional affection in return. 

Another of my patients, is in her early 80s with terminal COPD. She’ll tell you, the only reason she gets out of bed each morning is to care for her dog. This patient recently asked me to write a letter requesting the cost of her dog’s grooming be taken out of her level 4 home package. To her, this dog was as vital as her home oxygen to her survival. I wrote the letter. Not sure yet if it worked, but I wrote it. 

The positive influence of pets has been recognised for some time in aged care homes, boarding schools, children’s hospitals and some psychiatric institutions. And organisations such as Assistance Dogs and Guide Dogs have been around for decades – training dogs to help those people with a significant disability.  

But how do we improve access to this “pet therapy” for individuals in the community who may not be significantly disabled and are without a strong support network? 

I know, to date, I have been very reluctant to suggest a patient get a pet even when I honestly believe they could benefit from having one. It’s a huge responsibility to be sure. And as in Paul’s case, you need to be in the right headspace to manage the everyday realities of caring for a pet. 

But there are avenues through which you can foster a pet for short periods. And it doesn’t always have to be a dog or cat – although fish are less amenable to going for a walk. 

I think it’s just a case of bringing the benefits of having a pet to front of mind.  

If Paul’s experience has taught me anything it is just how valuable it can be for someone who is successfully caring for a pet, particularly a dog or cat, to recognise that they are needed and loved. And that is very powerful.   

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