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There are many things we’re advised to do for the betterment of our health – eat more kale, start jogging, go to bed earlier, drink water endlessly. We may utter groans of reluctance at some of these, but one suggestion – which has been shown to help lower blood pressure, decrease overall stress and prevent depression – is more likely to be met with smiles than sighs: Adopting a pet.
Kathy McCoy, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist, knows this well. For years, she integrated her own cats as part of her therapy, finding that her patients would open up and talk more freely when a furry co-therapist was sitting in their laps. “Pets provide a nonjudgmental sounding board,” says McCoy, who wrote a book about her therapy cats called Purr Therapy: What Timmy and Marina Taught Me About Love, Life and Loss. She says adopting a pet, or even just spending time around animals, can be used as one way to help heal after escaping a trauma like domestic violence.
“A lot of people underestimate how emotionally draining starting a new life can be. When the adrenaline is running in a crisis, you don’t allow yourself to feel the pain. Sometimes pain comes up when you begin restructuring your life,” says McCoy, who talks up the following as pluses for adoption.
- Less stress: Research shows animal owners have lower cortisol levels, otherwise known as the stress hormone. Just playing with or petting an animal has been shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure.
- Feeling safe: McCoy says domestic violence survivors may feel a greater sense of protection with the company of an animal, like a dog. Dogs can also help a survivor feel less vulnerable when out and about, especially if a survivor has a fear of others approaching them.
- Making friends: If you’re looking to interact with others and make new friends, McCoy says a dog can be a perfect icebreaker to striking up a conversation. “And in terms of rebuilding your life, that can be a very positive thing,” says McCoy.
- Comfort for kids: For kids who have been victims of or witnesses to domestic violence, McCoy says animals are amazing healers. “In terms of soothing, calming and protecting kids, they’re great. Pets are something kids can hang onto,” says McCoy. And if the animal has been a family pet for a while, keeping them with the family as a survivor starts a new life can bring a great sense of stability for a child, says McCoy.
When to Adopt?
Don’t adopt pets just before you leave a violent partner. Give yourself some time to get settled. Pets like cats and dogs do best with a settled routine, “so it’s better to adopt when you’re in a situation or place where you’re going to be for a while,” says McCoy.
Don’t Discount a Goldfish
If a dog or a cat doesn’t work with your living situation, a smaller pet like a goldfish can still be beneficial in terms of healing, says McCoy. It’s still a living thing that doesn’t judge, she says. And if you’re not in a place to adopt a pet at all, consider volunteering at a local animal rescue. “The animals need to heal, too. You’ll share that bond.”
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