“We were made for these times.” — Clarissa Pinkola Estes

A guru was sitting in a mountaintop cave next to a sign that said, “The Secret to Happiness.” A beleaguered seeker, struggling over the edge of the cliff after a long climb, was rewarded with these words: “Get a dog.”

While a dog may not be the key to happiness for everyone, having an animal in your life, whether a pet or service animal, can be helpful.

Dr. Helen Brooks at the University of Liverpool reported on 17 studies concluding that pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions. These studies ”illuminated the intensiveness of connectivity people have with companion animals ... and the multi-faceted ways in which pets contributed to the work associated with managing a mental health condition, particularly in times of crisis. The negative aspects of pet ownership were also highlighted, including the practical and emotional burden of pet ownership and the psychological impact of losing a pet.”

Another recent newspaper article noted an uptick in COVID-era pet adoptions by those seeking pets for companionship during the isolation, loneliness and boredom of lockdown. Seems like a nice solution though, some folks later discovered the burdens of pet ownership were unexpectedly high, including feeding, vet costs, rug cleaning and so forth. Some returned their newfound friends to the shelter. There’s a reason animal shelters are always filled with rescue animals.

A longtime patient came in recently with her service dog, Pinky. The cute little lap dog had an official harness labeled “service animal,” and the owner proudly showed me an official state of Texas service animal ID. Such officially designated animals can travel free on planes and be allowed in no-pet housing.

This lady had suffered numerous life traumas, including contracting a life-threatening, chronic tuberculosis-like lung infection from one of her patients when she was an ICU nurse. She lives alone, and Pinky is important for her emotional support. It was a sweet and calming moment when Pinky curled up at my feet in the clinic.

Another patient suffers from chronic depression, recurrent passive suicidal ideation and also lives alone. He has been feeling particularly down lately with COVID-related stressors though is not acutely suicidal.

When I asked what makes him get up in the morning, he simply said, “My dog.” This was a rescue animal “mutt,” but it gave him a continuing purpose and meaning to life, something to take care of, to keep going.

Many studies show animals can be helpful to mental health, a joy to the childless, to older adults living alone and to those with existing major emotional issues. Animals can be trained for specialized tasks like helping the blind, preventing psychiatric patients from cutting themselves or reminding owners to take medication. Research has included cats, dolphins, birds, cows, ferrets, guinea pigs as well as dogs. Only dogs and trained miniature horses can be “certified” by a doctor as companion service animals.

Our local shelter is prepared if you are ready to adopt.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.


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