Last fall, like seemingly every other person you know, I adopted a pandemic pet—Kai, a rambunctious ten-month-old Lab-golden mix. After a year of watching cats’ tails meandering by patients’ screens or hearing puppies barking in the background, I realized I wanted a pet, too. Perhaps I needed one.
Any mental-health professional will tell you that part of our job involves appreciating the therapeutic benefit of pets. In fact, I’m asked to write letters all the time to authorize emotional-support animals for patients who have been diagnosed with illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Having a pet can reduce stress and help you feel a sense of connectedness. Part of what’s happening likely involves the bonding hormone oxytocin, which is associated with intimacy. When you pet your dog, for example, the levels of oxytocin released in your brain rise, stress hormones like cortisol tend to fall, and there can also be a noticeable decrease in blood pressure—all of which may contribute to an improved sense of well-being. In addition to these mental benefits, pet ownership is generally linked to better overall health, including lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Although I was aware of the science, I really just wanted a dog to run with me and play an occasional game of fetch. I’d had pets before. My parents took me to adopt my first dog when I was nine. So as an only child, I still had playful company around, even if it meant throwing a Frisbee to a bug-eyed Chihuahua, hoping she would bring it back. I was aiming for a sportier breed this time around. I found myself thinking, Having a pet would be fun.
To be completely honest, the first few weeks didn’t feel therapeutic at all. While I was trying to teach Kai how to sit, she was more interested in chewing up my wife’s shoes or peeing underneath my desk.
I soon realized that I still had a thing or two to learn about having a pet—and about what she’d do for me. Friends in the mental-health field have said the same. We’ve seen that there’s what science tells us pet ownership does, and there are the subtle ways pets make us better:
Pets plug you in
I noticed that training Kai by using hand gestures, giving out treats, and raising my eyebrows to get her to bark actually improved my nonverbal communication and active listening not just with her but also with my very human patients. When I adopted Kai, I was told she’d likely been through some trauma in her early life. She was naturally timid, so when she darted away from me, I knew that running after her was a bad idea. The only way to get her to come back was to pay attention to her and to actively listen to what she was trying to communicate. When I’d kneel and motion for her, she’d settle down and walk back to me. It reminded me that plugging in to subtle nonverbal cues from patients gets us further: A head nod may tell me when to dive deeper; a long pause before answering a question suggests I might want to avoid that topic.
Pets provide structure
It’s a given that caring for another being—a pet or a kid—requires some structure in your life. But I was impressed by how much Kai put me back into a good rhythm. Now, instead of hitting snooze or scrolling through Instagram, I awaken to the Kai alarm every day at 7:30. If I don’t, I know I’ll be scrubbing the floor. And, of course, I have a running buddy who always wants me to run.
Pets put the news in its place
An Austin-based psychotherapist I know, Dixon Parnell, says his two cats don’t care much about his work or the news. Neither does Kai; when she’s ready to play, she starts barking regardless of what’s on my to-do list. Although being interrupted isn’t always convenient, a playful three-minute ball-throwing challenge gets me away from the computer and allows me to return refreshed and better focused. Pets are on a totally different rhythm, and it’s one of wanting scratches, treats, playtime, and new places to sleep. Dixon tells me that seeing his cat be all about what’s really important—sleep, nutrition, exercise—keeps him from being thrown off-balance by things like work stress or a toxic news cycle.
Pets help you slow down
Kai is a great companion, but for some people, caring for an animal fosters an even deeper connection. For psychiatrist and fellow MH advisor Drew Ramsey, M.D., the time he invests in grooming his horse, Cinco, “helps me settle down and check in,” he says. That’s especially important with an animal that’s more powerful than you by a factor of at least 20, he adds. There’s no fighting his power or staying on if the horse decides he’s done with you. You need to be able to read each other.
After almost a year of looking after—and being looked after by—Kai, I’m finally able to take her for those runs I always imagined, and when I throw a tennis ball, she’ll bring it back (at least most of the time). I’m not going to say pets are better therapists than we are for complicated issues, but don’t overlook all that they can do for you.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Men's Health.