Your Pet Can Keep You Here

I wish people would realize that animals are totally dependent on us, helpless, like children,a trust that is put upon us.

James Herriot, veterinarian and author of All Creatures Great and Small.

In my years of educating about depression and suicide, many people have told me that their attachment to their pets has been a primary reason they choose to keep on living. In fact, it is well-established in the mental health community that having a pet can improve a person’s sense of well-being. Over the years, I have seen people bond to their dogs, cats, horses, parrots, turtles and even snakes.

For many people, having a pet is like having a child and provides the same kind of deep emotional bonding. When this bonding occurs, the “love hormone” oxytocin is released into the bloodstream, creating feelings of pleasure. If you are feeling suicidal, these feelings of well-being can serve as a powerful antidote to the despair and depression that you are likely feeling.    

A pet may become your primary source of love and support if you have no family or close friends nearby, and can help you make it through the times when you are waiting to receive professional support.

Here is a powerful testimony from Andrew, a disabled Army combat veteran who has experienced numerous suicide attempts and hospitalizations. His words demonstrate how a strong bond to a pet can tether you to life:

“I have a service dog and she literally keeps me alive. I recommend that if you are suicidal and alone, try to get a little buddy. Animals have no malice, no manipulation, have absolute loyalty and will love you even if you don't love yourself. Don't stay all alone, please. If you can't deal with people, a little fuzzy pal can help keep you here until you find the help you need. It doesn't have to be a service dog. Just a pet who has endless love for you no matter how bad you feel.”

So great is this healing impact of animals on human beings that mental health professionals can now prescribe service dogs for individuals who suffer from psychiatric disorders.

Finally, for people like myself who are more drawn to felines than canines, bonding with cats can also keep us alive. During my third suicidal episode, I adopted a cat from the Humane Society. I decided to call him Gabriel, which means “God is my strength.” Over the next few months, nurturing Gabriel gave me a reason to stick around.

How to Bring Animal Support Into Your Life

  1. To find a pet to provide emotional support, you can 1) visit your local animal shelter, 2) go to your local pet store, or 3) find one online via social media.
  2. If you have a psychiatric disorder and believe that having an animal in your life can contribute to keeping you well, you might consider talking to a psychiatrist or other mental health professional about getting a therapy dog (trained to provide comfort and affection) or a service dog (trained to perform specific tasks) as support.
  3. If pets are not allowed where you live, you can spend time with the pet of a friend or family member. Or, you can go to your local humane society and volunteer to help take care of the animals. 

Journal Reflection

Using your own journal or the Your Pets Can Keep You Here form, take some time to reflect upon and answer the following questions.

  1. In the past, what role have pets/animals played in improving your mental health?
  2. Do you currently own a pet or have access to one? If so, is that animal helping you to meet your need for love and connection?
  3. Is the relationship with this pet/animal giving you a reason to live? Write down some ways that this animal is supporting you.
  4. If you do not have an animal in your life, can you imagine that having one would be supportive for you now?