How Pets Help Family Members with Mental Illness

February 15, 2021 Nicola Spendlove

Pets are important and beneficial in general, but they can play a special role in the lives of those with mental illness. I never owned any pets as a child, but I adopted a dog as an adult, and my brother has become an honorary pet parent as a result. I am amazed to watch how his relationship with my dog helps him cope with chronic anxiety and depression. Here is a short reflection on the benefits of pets for family members with mental illness.

2 Ways Pets Help Family Members with Mental Illness

Pets Have Low Relational Demands

Relationships with other people can be tricky—there are many unwritten rules and unspoken demands in a human relationship. If you deal with anxiety, you might overthink interactions with friends or family members. Pets, however, generally treat you with the same level of affection regardless of how you present on a given day. Even if you neglect basic hygiene and self-care (as can often be the case with acute mental illness), a pet still wants to cuddle next to you. When you're so overwhelmed that all you can do is cry, a pet doesn't ask difficult questions or even seem alarmed.

In my work as an occupational therapist, I talk a lot about the concept of unconditional positive regard, and pets are perfect examples of this. Come as you are, and they just love you without hidden terms or conditions. Having that kind of relationship in your life (even if it's with an animal) boosts your self-esteem and mood state, which is one of the reasons why pets and family members with mental illness can be such a wonderful pairing.

Pets Create Routine

This might seem counterintuitive, but when my brother is experiencing a difficult mental health period, I often call in a favor and ask him to watch the dog for a few days. I do this because I know that pets create a sense of routine and structure without even thinking about it.

If my brother wants to sleep all day, it's not an option when he cares for a dog that needs to be taken outside at a reasonable hour of the morning. The dog also needs to be walked, so my brother must get dressed and leave the house for exercise at least once a day. The dog needs regular meal times, which reminds my brother to grab food for himself at those times as well. As an animal lover, my brother will not neglect this little creature's needs, and meeting them forces him to meet some of his own needs at the same time.

I understand that my perspective is limited, as young dogs are definitely on the needier end of the spectrum, but I am interested to hear about the experiences of other pet owners. Does caring for a pet impact the mental health of those in your family? Leave a comment, and let's talk.

APA Reference
Spendlove, N. (2021, February 15). How Pets Help Family Members with Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Author: Nicola Spendlove

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February, 16 2021 at 5:02 pm

I really notice a gap in my life. I'm an animal lover. Dr said I'm sensitive to pet dander. My cat is now my sister's pet and she lives more than 90 minutes by car, over 2 hours using public transport.
Agree with as pet giving structure, routine as cat needed feeding, fresh water, lots of pats which helped me on a few levels. He is credited with helping my pneumonia because he purred in a special way sitting high on my chest - something puss did not do before or after I was healed.

February, 20 2021 at 4:24 am

Oh Fleur, so sorry to hear your cat is so far away now. As an animal lover myself I can only imagine what a heartbreaking decision that was. You're right about structure -- I definitely found during COVID lockdown that my dog gave me great structure and a reason to get up in the morning, which was so helpful mentally.
Re your pneumonia story -- completely unrelated to mental health, but I've had a similar experience! My dog sniffed out an early stage melanoma on my leg that I definitely wouldn't have noticed til much later otherwise. Animals are incredible for so many reasons!
Thanks for reading and for your comment, I love hearing other people's stories.

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