Illustration by Adam Q

Mindful life: The power of pets

Caring for an animal is soothing and healing. We should bring back the permanent ward pet
May 12, 2022

Sometimes, it feels as though my patients have nothing left in their lives. Alcohol or mental illness has taken everything that they loved—family, friends, joy—and I am filled with fear for them. What will they do when they go home? But then they mention their dog and suddenly I feel just a bit more hopeful. Many of my patients have pets—dogs, cats, even reptiles and rats. As mental health professionals we sometimes worry that, when gripped by addiction, our patients may not be able to care for their pets properly, but this is rarely the case.

Why do animals make us feel better? This will be a dog-focused answer, because I have dogs, but I’m sure it can be extended to many species. My dogs are always pleased to see me—ecstatically so. They don’t talk or try to make me do things that I don’t want to do—other than take them for long walks in the rain—and they sit as close to me as they can. They let me nurture them and they show no reproach—except when I don’t want to throw a ball for the hundredth time. They always forgive me, whatever I do, and I never feel lonely when I’m with them. When I have been ill, I have found my dogs to be a great and undemanding comfort. 

Having a dog makes you exercise in the way that a gym membership never can, and walking a dog can be social—you are more likely to say hello or exchange a wry smile with another dog walker. It may not be much, but it is a connection that can change a lonely day.

When I was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital, there were still occasional pets on wards (maybe a fish tank, sometimes a budgie). I wouldn’t describe myself as a fish lover, but there is something soothing and hypnotic about their movement: the presence of pets is normal and reassuring. We no longer have pets in the hospital where I work; no one formally acknowledged the cat that—until recently—wandered the wards, but it was a cheering presence for patients and staff alike. I don’t know where it meandered off to. 

Although ward pets may not be permitted, therapy pets are now recognised as a source of joy to people in hospices and hospitals, and it would be lovely if this practice were more widespread. But I would still favour a permanent ward pet, even a small one like a gerbil, and I can’t see what harm it would do, given that rodents are allegedly never too far away anyway. It would give patients something interesting to observe as well as something to care for.

The pain of losing a pet can be huge, especially if your main reason for living is a rather old dog with health problems. Some years ago I had a patient who was quite ill and alone, and a worry to all those who cared for him. But he had a dog that he walked for miles, and to whom he was devoted. We all liked his dog too. It was the only dog that was allowed into out-patient appointments—admittedly, some of the other patients had rather scary dogs. We all worried about what would happen when this dog died. How would the man cope? I went to work in a different department, but much later I heard that, when the time came, he had done the sensible thing, got another dog and carried on as before. You never forget a beloved animal. But you can love another one.

As patient and doctor, I think animals can bring joy and comfort to many. At times of illness and sadness, my dogs, Jacob and Lola, have provided me with great consolation, all without even trying.