How Pets Can Lift Your Spirits

When Angela separated from Tom, her husband of 10 years, she hoped the situation would be temporary. She rented an apartment, while Tom and their nine-year-old cat remained in the couple's home. As weeks turned into months, with no reconciliation in sight, she began to exhibit all of the classic signs of depression. "I had crying jags in the morning before I went to work, I couldn't sleep, and I was gradually withdrawing from family and friends," she remembers. "Basically, I lost my zest for living."

Then a colleague at work mentioned that her neighbor had kittens for sale. "I went to have a look, and I fell in love with two of them," she says. Three weeks later, the kittens were hers, and within days, her depression had started to lift. "Suddenly, there was someone to welcome me home at the end of a long day, someone to laugh with, someone to care for again...They were a great, drug-free solution to my depression -- kind of 'pet Prozac,' actually," she smiles.

Angela's story is far from unique. Numerous studies over the past 20 years have documented the positive power of pets on both our mental and physical health. A 1993 report in the Harvard Health Letter highlights some of these benefits: lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels. The report also points to the fact that companion animals have more consistent behavior than their human counterparts. In other words, they offer their owners a genuine sense of unconditional love.

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Scientific Proof of Pets' Healing Power

Unlike well-meaning friends and family, who often choose sides and offer "helpful" unsolicited advice to individuals who are in the throes of separation and divorce, animals are non-judgmental. "If you have the best day you've ever had, your dog will be there for you 100 percent," says Eric Cline, Canadian director of the Grief Recovery Institute. "Conversely, if you've just had the worst day you've ever had, your pet will still be there. Better still -- they're intuitive. They seem to know immediately when you've had a rotten day."

While there have been no studies that specifically deal with the role of pets during divorce, an experimental study conducted by Karen Allen, Ph.D., would seem to indicate that dogs can play a major role in guiding us safely through rocky periods in our lives. Allen, a researcher at the School of Medical & Biological Sciences, State of New York University at Buffalo, asked a group of women (admittedly, all self-described dog-lovers) to relate how dogs had influenced their lives. All of the participants mentioned ways in which they believed their pets had assisted them through events involving change or transition, including divorce and death of a spouse. "Several women in this group offered numerous examples of how their dogs provided a unique kind of support in times of divorce, in situations with co-workers, and in events involving illness," Allen reports. "A recurring theme was the use of imagery of the dog in times of high stress, and there were consistent reports that when the dog was imagined, obstacles appeared less daunting and difficult tasks more possible."

Simply put, animals provide an emotional anchor for individuals who have sailed into troubled waters. "They give people something to focus on other than themselves," explains Carolyn Clark, director of The Human-Animal Bond Association of Canada. Pets also make you feel needed. "When you're feeling depressed, you may want to just stay in bed and pull the covers over your head," she says. "But if you have a dog, for instance, you know that it needs to be fed and walked. So there's some sense of stability and continuity there...there's someone who needs your care."

That sense of stability was a real lifesaver for Angela. Today, she is reunited with her husband, and she, Tom, and the three cats live together under one roof. "We don't have children, so it's like our own version of a blended family," she laughs. Then turning more serious, she says: "I'll always be grateful to my two cats for helping to pull me through a very difficult time."

Channeling the power of pets

If animals have always been a part of your life, that continuity is probably going to be helpful to you as you work through your situation, says Clark. "Everything else may be going to pieces, but animals provide a common thread, a structure, a routine that has to be followed." Beyond the "chore" of caring for a pet, just being with an animal -- sharing an evening walk with your dog or having a conversation with your cat -- can be calming and meditative.

For Fiona, spending time with her horse is a form of meditation. "Sometimes, when I've had a really rotten day, I'll head up to the barn and just brush Bailey," she says. It's very 'Zen' -- those repetitive movements and patterns -- and you can feel waves of pleasure radiating from the animal." It takes about an hour to thoroughly groom a horse, she says, so by the time Bailey is gleaming, Fiona is feeling peaceful and happy. "Riding is another great stress-buster," she adds. "Galloping across a grassy field blows off a lot of steam for both of us, and meandering along a forest path is immensely relaxing. All thoughts and worries disappear while I'm riding."

Fiona found comfort in the horse world during her parents' divorce (she was 14 at the time). "We didn't have much money, so I worked at barns in exchange for riding," she says. "Then the stable owner more-or-less gave me Bailey, and I worked in exchange for board." Paying for the upkeep of a horse while going to school was a huge responsibility for the teen, but she was happy to face the challenge. "It has been totally worth it," she says. "Bailey has gotten me through some very tough times."

Bailey and Fiona have been a team for more than a decade now,and they seem exquisitely tuned to each other's moods. "Horses are very empathic," asserts Fiona. "They pick up and then act on your moods -- which is why it's so important to remain calm while you're riding or grooming. For me, riding is a perfect combination of meditation and exercise."

Pets and kids

As Fiona discovered, companion animals can also help ease a child's passage through divorce. According to the Delta Society, an international resource for the human-animal bond, pets appear to "lessen the loneliness that occurs when children provide their own self care, and children with a strong pet bond score higher on empathy for other children than do children without pets. This may have significant implications for the future -- if these children can reach adulthood and retain their empathy, they may have an easier time coexisting with others, and be less apt to suffer from loneliness."

Chris was 13 when his parents separated. "After Mom and Dad told me they were splitting up, I remember thinking that I was now the'man of the house' and had to take care of my Mom and little sister Claire," he says. "I had been brought up to think that 'real' men didn't cry, so I resolved not to cry in front of my 'womenfolk.' Luckily, I had Max -- the most wonderful Golden Retriever -- to lean on."

Chris says he used to go up to his room when he needed to cry, wrap his arms around Max, and sob his grief and fear into Max's fluffy neck. "He really saved me," remembers Chris. "He always seemed so sympathetic, non-judgmental, and loving -- he'd just lick away my tears and stay with me as long as I needed him." Chris would also take Max for long runs when the teenager needed a physical outlet for emotional distress. "Racing through the ravines near my house was a lot better than putting my fist through the wall, which I really wanted to do some days."

Would You Make a Good "Pet Parent?"

Experts warn against rushing into pet ownership -- especially first-time pet ownership -- during the early stages of grief recovery. "Bringing an animal into the home at this stage could add more stress to your life," cautions Marilyn Clark. "You might over-project onto the animal, and become too involved with it. There's a risk that the animal might be expected to take on all of your emotional needs. This wouldn't be fair to the animal, or healthy for you." Eric Cline agrees. "While we try not to be judgmental in our approach, we recommend that people address their grief first and foremost. We tell them,'Let's get you into a recovery program first, then you'll be able to make the right choice about which pet is right for you.'"

The good news is that there are many ways you can interact with a pet without becoming a pet owner. (And we don't mean flying to Miami to swim with the dolphins.) Here are a few suggestions:

 

  • Volunteer at your local animal shelter or clinic.
  • Ask around your neighborhood and see if anyone needs help with walking their dog.
  • Pet-sit for friends and family. It's a great way to find out what you like or dislike about a particular type or breed of companion animal.
  • Go to the zoo. Volunteer to take a group of school children on a day-trip, or just make a visit by yourself. Take a loaded camera, and get ready to have some fun.
  • Put out a bird feeder. It may seem simplistic, but it's a great way to start bonding with animals, suggests Clark.
  • Visit www.ralstonpurina.com on the Internet. The pet-food maker's site offers a fun and informative "Interactive Breed Selector Quiz" (under "Dogs"), which can help you choose the right breed based on size, activity, temperament, coat, etc.

 

Questions to Ask when Thinking about Getting a Pet

Then, once you're ready to commit to a pet, ask yourself the following questions:

 

  • If you're renting, does your building allow pets? What types?
  • Is your living situation permanent, or is it likely to change in the near future?
  • How much time do you have to devote to a pet? Different animals require different levels of attachment and responses, says Clark. A dog may be more demanding emotionally than a cat, while dogs and cats are obviously more demanding than, say, fish.
  • How fastidious are you as a housekeeper? Will dog- or cat-hair be a problem for you? Will allergies be a problem?
  • How will your children, if any, react to a pet in your life?
  • Are you willing and able to commit yourself to caring for a companion animal for the next 10 to 15 years?

Divorce Magazine provides advice and support for those coping with separation, divorce, and remarriage. For more tips and stories, visit www.DivorceMagazine.com.

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