It was the spring of 2018, and I was just two months shy of my two-year anniversary at my dream job – Executive Director of The Center for Animal Health & Welfare, a non-profit animal shelter. I had just purchased my first home and was planning a trip to my favorite city, Key West, Florida. By all accounts, from the outside looking in, life was perfect…
For those suffering from mental illness, we know that perfection is an ideology – a wish for a life less complicated. Some days are better than others, and some are so good that perfection doesn’t seem so far away. And just like that, our shoulders are seemingly broken by the weight of the world. I know because I have had many of those days in the last 15 years. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2004. For the woman who prided herself on her ability to control a situation, I was ashamed to admit that I could not control the news I received. Although relieved to have an answer to the many questions I had, I was devastated at the thought of being labeled mentally ill.
43.8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year. One in five people will suffer some form of mental illness in their lifetime, yet the stigma related to mental disorders leads to shame, embarrassment and often times failure to properly care for the disease. For me, using the word “disease” is strange in itself. We are led to believe that mental health is a choice. It took me many years to shed my shame. Even as I accepted my future, I continued to struggle with how to handle the day by day.
For me, the proof of the healing power of connecting with a pet came in the person of a flesh-and-blood friend named Fred.
I grew up with animals, and I began adopting dogs in my early 20’s. It wasn’t until I began my career at The Center for Animal Health & Welfare that I began to see the therapeutic values of being around them. I noticed how many stories I would hear from adopters whose mental health benefitted from adopting a pet.
May 1, 2018 began as a typical day. My animal care manager Cathy and I were reviewing the animals in our care. She mentioned a stray dog by the name of “Old Man Fred.” An aging cattle dog with vision problems, Fred was suffering from kidney disease. I was informed that Fred was dying and it was only a matter of time before he would lose his battle. She recalled how the last few nights he would cry in his kennel, looking for comfort and the love of a human.
In our field, we are often responsible for finding a loving home for those without one. We are the matchmakers that give a homeless pet the family they oftentimes never had. This time was different. For Fred, we were looking for someone to provide a place for his final days … and for that I immediately decided he would come home with me.
On our way home, as I gazed in to his broken, yet hopeful eyes, I knew Fred deserved more. In that moment, I decided that Fred would come home with me to live, not just to die.
I wasn’t naïve; I knew that Fred’s time was limited. I also knew that he needed someone who believed in him … someone to love him regardless of his flaws. I needed him for the same reasons. While I had friends and family who loved me, it was hard for me to share my struggles. As many do, I viewed my mental health as a weakness. Sharing my struggle made me vulnerable, something I wasn’t willing to do.
Fred and I began a “bucket list” journey. I was going to give him the life that every dog should have before they die. In return, unbeknownst to him, Fred was giving me the unconditional love that I was desperately in need of at the time.
Our journey took Fred and me many places. I took him to vote, we celebrated his birthday (and those he would never see), we went to the beach, joined a yoga class and ate lots of cheeseburgers together. We often rode around in the car so Fred could feel the wind in his hair; the look of contentment and joy on his face each time is something that I will never forget. Each week, we would share our story with our Facebook followers on Feel Good Friday with Fred. Thousands of supporters would tune in to share our journey.
Dogs can be a lot to handle, but studies show that responsibility helps your mental health by offering reassurance that you can care for another creature and for yourself. Our journey together was not always easy. Twice daily I had to give Fred intravenous fluids, I would carry him when his body no longer had the strength to walk and I cleaned up many accidents when his bladder just couldn’t hold it. Each night before bed, I would snuggle with all my dogs and hold Fred as I sang, “You Are My Sunshine.” As Fred would gaze at me, grateful for my love, I was reminded of how lucky I was to be his mom.
As Fred’s disease progressed, I began to see that the end was closing in. When days were bad, I would put Fred in the car and we would head to the beach or the closest lake. There was something about being in the water that gave Fred a new lease on life. He would forget his aches and pains as he splashed around like a puppy. He would jump and play, turning back the hands of time until his poor body just couldn’t go anymore. I would carry him back to the car and we would stop for a cheeseburger to complete the day.
My journey with Fred ended on July 31st, 2018. After a car ride with all the windows down, two cheeseburgers and one last “You Are My Sunshine” on the river’s edge, I held him in my arms as he took his last breath. Fred never took his eyes off me. During the time, I thought he was looking to me for reassurance. After he passed, I realized it wasn’t an accident that Fred came into my life. He didn’t just need me, we needed each other. I wasn’t his savior; I was a girl and he was my dog. Together, we loved freely and without caution.
Fred was ready to go weeks before his death. Looking back, I now know that Fred was hanging on for me. I always felt that Fred could sense his purpose in my life. According to a study published in the journal Learning & Behavior, not only can dogs perceive changes in human emotional states, but man’s best friend will take it a step further and overcome physical obstacles to go to an owner’s aid.
Research also shows that dogs reduce stress, anxiety and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and improve your all-around health.
- A recent study showed that dog owners take 2,760 more steps per day on average compared to non-owners, which amounted to an additional 23 daily minutes of moderate exercise.
- A study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that pet owners have greater self-esteem and are better able to bounce back from rejection. Other studies have found that a pet can help children develop empathy.
- And the effect is not just mental; research shows that playing with dogs has been shown to elevate levels of oxytocin and dopamine, creating positive feelings and bonding for both the person and their pet. Having a pet has been proven to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
Fred’s life was not the miracle cure for my mental illness. Like so many others, I find it is still a daily struggle. What I will say is that Fred’s love, the love of all my dogs and every homeless pet that comes to our shelter, gives me purpose. It reminds me of my value and worth.
People can say, “Well, it’s just a dog.” To that I say, “You are wrong. Have you ever been greeted by a dog after a long day, or even 10 minutes? Tail wagging and butt wiggling, they can hardly contain their excitement for your return. If the human race showed each other that level of love, the world would be a better, kinder place.”
By no means do I consider myself an expert or authority on the correlation of pets and mental health. I am simply a dog mom who is unconditionally loved by her pups. I can’t give you any profound, life-changing advice, but I will end with this:
Be the person your dog thinks you are.
For more information visit www.healthyanimalcenter.org