CHENNAI: In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer, said Albert Camus. How long do you think it took him to get to that place of knowledge? And what could have possibly helped? For there were times when my summer didn’t seem all that invincible. Having outgrown a home, lost love and languished in labour, I settled into the cold. That was until two adopted kittens thawed me out. There is something about watching them learn to trust you and rely on you for comfort and company, that pretty much turns your whole life around. It offered a way out of my trauma. And certainly, I’m not the only one who made it back to the warmth via animals.
Tried and tested
Ambika Durga Prasad found relief in Aprel, her month-old labrador, when she found herself battling loneliness and uncertainty. Her single mother was too busy with work, her friends were distant and the pressure to get married was looming over her head. It was all too much to bear till one day she returned home with a puppy. And not for nothing, animals tend to be far more sensitive than many humans. “She knows when you are down or sad. When I cry or even act like it, she would come running and keep her head on my chest or lie on my lap. No human can be equal,” declares Ambika. Loganathan Velmurugan turned to fish when he started living alone. When Netflix, books, music and writing left him with little pleasure, his fish helped him sail through loneliness. “The fish don’t respond but they hear me, they listen to all my words,” he says, vouching for their worth as good company.
Janani Baskaran names her pets as her saviour. Her beloved chippiparai has the company of four birds, every stray they care for, and squirrels that come and go. Manisha Shewaramani, who lost a year of her education and active life to a freak accident, injury and recovery, lends that title to her beagle Buddy. Such anecdotal evidence is aplenty. When several studies suggest that pet owners are happier than those without pets, it is easy to believe that their source of happiness helps them tide through the worst. Yet, does it translate to therapeutic value?
Shaheen Fathima was recovering from heartbreak and depression when rescue cat Billy made her way to the house. She who had struggled to even eat or take care of herself for days found herself setting out a routine to attend to the kitten. “I had a life in my hands that I had to take care of; she gave me confidence and a reason to live,” she shares. Soon enough, there were changes — progress — enough for her therapist to notice. Sri Vidya too had been at therapy for a while before her cat, Cera, came into her life. Suddenly, it was getting easier to put to practice what was being prescribed in therapy, with the hope and opportunity her cat brought home.
All the pros
Naaz Ghani, however, had the recommendation come her way through her therapist. When one mental health professional diagnosed a level of depression and another remarked about her unusual spurts of anxious energy, she turned to a third opinion that finally gave her an ADHD diagnosis. To bring about some consciousness to her emotional outbursts, she was told that caring for someone could help.
A rescue call soon after brought Benji into her life and there has been no turning back since. “It motivated me to get up and start walking with him, exercising and it snowballed into a healthier lifestyle. He is also growing and has gotten quite understanding of emotions. Since the past two months, when I get extremely angry and start shaking, he takes my hand and tries to play with me. It helps understand my mood,” she shares.
While a pet may not be an obvious way to help someone with ADHD, Naagarajan found that this — besides the suggestion to get a plant — was the most recommended for Borderline Personality Disorder in every support group he checked online. In the midst of an episode, he adopted Manimegalai and started caring for her. A few therapy sessions down the line, he had his therapist vouching for this form of self-care. “I healed a lot last year because of my pet. She offered a sense of purpose. Besides, mine is a proper dysfunctional family; we don’t gel well. But all of us bonded over the cat,” he narrates.
Aparna Raghavan, a counselling psychologist, agrees that there are a lot of benefits to be had with interaction with animals. She has found many of her patients show progress just with the limited time they get with her cat, Annamalai. Though not a pet-assisted therapist, working from the comfort of her home allows for her patients, those willing, to meet the cat. “My clients get to build a relationship with him with every visit. I would not suggest this as an alternative to therapy but as a supplement. I suggest those with pets to spend more time with them. It helps you to develop a sense of habit and they will push you to keep at it. That way they help build consistency. This is very difficult when you don’t have external motivation. Mindfully taking care of something/somebody else also helps,” she explains.
Of benefits and balance
The general suggestion is to work on something that people with mental health issues have an interest in — it could be pets or cricket, says Mithun Prasad, consultant psychiatrist at SIMS. “When we involve ourselves in activities that will help our sense of wellbeing, a chemical called dopamine is released in our mesolimbic pathway. That’s how people having psychological illnesses seek help. But it can not be a generalised prescription for everyone with mental illness. People with OCD have their stress acutely increase when there is a pet in the house. But for people with psychological illnesses who constantly ruminate or overthink about certain sensors, staying with a pet will cut them off from what they are thinking about. So, it helps there,” he shares. Yet, the real pet therapy should happen at the pshyciatrist’s clinic but that is not something that formally happens in India, he notes.
As much as there can be enormous benefits from caring for a pet, it can exacerbate mental illnesses if it turns out to be an obligation. For this reason, Aparna hardly encourages anyone to adopt a pet, especially if they are the only one in the place of responsibility. The advice is often to focus on a pet that is already home. “I would not suggest it to someone who has had a pattern of inconsistency or who is struggling a lot to cope with their daily life (like someone with chronic depression),” she points out. Aishwarya, Manoj, Manasa and Meenakshy are among the many others who found relief in their pets’ presence. Perhaps, one day, it will be the answer you seek too.
When pet therapy is selective
As much as there can be benefits from caring for a pet, it can exacerbate mental illnesses if it turns out to be an obligation. Then, guilt comes into play and it would only worsen one’s mental health, say experts. “For people with anxiety, depressive symptoms or acute stress, pet therapy can help. But not much for people with psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It depends on the severity too,” cautions Mithun.