On January 29th, Bell will promote the “Bell Let’s Talk Day.” The goal is to help create a stigma-free culture and mutual understanding on the topic of mental health. It also raises funds for community programs and research in the mental health field.
This got me thinking about the many ways in which pets, veterinary medicine, and mental health are intimately intertwined. Some connections are obvious, while others are more discrete. So let’s talk. Let’s talk about our mental health, the mental health of our pets, and how we aren’t all that different.
It is widely known that animals positively influence one’s health. People with pets experience reduced stress, lowered blood pressure, and feelings of joy and purpose.
Pets live in the moment, and they teach us to do the same. They are elated when you return home from your day at work. They are happiest when you call them over to say hello. An empty box provides the perfect fort for a cat. A Kong toy with peanut butter causes a dog’s eyes to widen with anticipation. They teach us mindfulness in ways that no other podcast, blog, book or weekend course can.
Mental health is stigmatized in human medicine and veterinary medicine. Inappropriate language is used to describe people that are both struggling or succeeding with their mental health obstacles. In the same way, fear-aggressive dogs are labelled as “mean.” Anxious cats are labelled as “anti-social.” A dog or cat that urinates in the house due to behavioural causes is labelled as “vengeful” and “purposefully destructive.” Let’s leave the labels at the door, for people and pets alike. Let’s remember that what we see on the outside is only a partial reflection of what’s happening on the inside. We need to check in with our people and our pets. And we need to prioritize mental health and recognize that sometimes treatment may involve a self-care regime, consultation with a professional in the field, and perhaps even medications.
Pets help us build healthy habits, and they hold us accountable for their health and our own. They might be your walking partner or running partner. Maybe you are trying kick-sledding or skijoring together. Perhaps you are one of the rare pet owners that take their cat on a camping trip, or your parrot to an outdoor concert. Whatever your activity of choice may be, the fact of the matter remains: you are exploring the world together, and building upon new experiences that positively impacts your lives.
Pets help prevent feelings of social isolation. They can do this in many ways. The obvious is that dogs get us out of the house where we are more likely to meet new people with common interests in animals. Or perhaps your pet provides an easy icebreaker in a conversation with a new group of coworkers. You are also instantly a part of a community of animal lovers that is ready to embrace any participant, whether it be in an online platform, in the world of advocacy, animal rescue, or simply as a silly cat video admirer. They also act as a dependent, giving us, their humans, a sense of purpose and worth. Who would be their person if I weren’t here to care for them? Who would know that my cat prefers to drink out of a glass on the counter rather than her three bowls on the ground? That sense of purpose has saved many people that have struggled with mental health obstacles.
Animals have mental health needs as well. When they are recovering from a medical issue, we must remember the TLC required to help their mind and mood recover too. Maybe it’s in the form of a car ride or a special treat. Or perhaps it’s some special time on the couch with their human. Mental health directly affects their physical health, just like their human counterparts.
It may be the official day of Bell’s campaign, however let’s try to focus on daily mindfulness when it comes to the importance of mental health across all species, and all walks of life. Removing the stigma, opening up the lines of safe and non-judgmental communication, can quite literally save lives. As your veterinary team, we will always advocate for the physical health and well-being of your pet, but we will also check in with you to make sure that you’re doing ok. Being a primary caregiver to a sick or senior pet can be difficult, and we want to help support you in this journey. Our Central Veterinary Services team aims to improve the lives of all pets and their human counterparts, so that they can enjoy a life of health, happiness and fulfillment. So don’t be a stranger. Let’s talk.
Written by Dr. Samyra Stuart-Altman