Pets and PTSD

by Suzanne Grosser

If you’re dealing with PTSD, or during any dark period in your life, your pet can be an amazing source of comfort. In those times, your dog or cat can be your best friend. Maybe your only friend. They give you the reassurance and acceptance you might not feel anywhere else.

That’s why Mickey Rourke thanked his dogs when he accepted his 2009 Golden Globe award. Sometimes, all you have is your dog. Sometimes, that’s all you need. And really, sometimes, that is all you can handle.

Why Pets are better than People If you have PTSD

Caroline Knapp explored this in her book, Pack of Two. Her dog, Lucille became her center when her life was spinning out of control. Caroline gave up drinking alcohol, gave up her human companion, and kept Lucille.

Why? Because being in a relationship with a dog or cat is a lot easier than being in a relationship with a person.

Your pet doesn’t judge you by the same standards people do. Your dog doesn’t care what kind of car you drive and your cat is unimpressed by your designer label clothes. Your dog loves any car that gets the two of you to the park and cat fur sticks just as well to Old Navy as it does to Versace. If you play with your pet, give them a warm dry place to sleep (preferably near you), and you keep their food and water bowls filled, you are a good person.

You’ve judged others in the past. And you certainly know what it feels like to be judged. Now you’re feeling acceptance. Hopefully, after awhile, you will think more like your pet. You will care about how people treat others, and not about their social status.

Your pet has clear, but simple expectations for you. Clean my litter box. Take me for a walk. Throw the ball. You can do this stuff. If you mess up, your pet will let you know. A dog will whine and mope about, much like a person would. A cat will sit on the book you’re trying to read, walk across the keyboard while you’re online, and if you don’t take the hint, they will leave you a reminder elsewhere, like your bed or your shoes. But, unlike a person, they will instantly and unconditionally forgive you when you (finally) change the litter box or toss the ball.

You know what to expect from your pet. If you have a dog, it will bark. If you don’t like barking, you don’t get a dog. If you have a cat, it will shed. If you don’t want cat fur on your clothes and furniture, don’t get a cat. You will have to walk your dog. You will need to provide toys for your cat. There will be vet bills, license fees, vomit on the carpet from time to time.

It is a whole package, you accept all or none. Just like with people. PTSD has made you clearer about what is important to you, about what you want and don’t want. Maybe you don’t want to own a dog. Or maybe you don’t want that person in your life. Not because dogs are bad. Not because that person is bad. But because they don’t fit with your life.

A pet keeps you grounded in the present. This is the only way you to move forward. Your pet lives in the moment, reminding you that life is now, not then, and not someday. That’s hard to remember when you are dealing with the symptoms of PTSD. But it is difficult to brood over the past when you’re playing ball. You can’t worry about tomorrow while you are petting a cat. When you spend time with your dog or cat, you are completely in the now.

Your pet needs your love and attention. It is good for you to think about the needs of another creature. And there are health benefits, too. Medical studies have shown that petting a dog or cat can lower your blood pressure and your cholesterol. Good for you, good for them. The perfect relationship.

If you have a dog, you will exercise. I frequently don’t feel like that 5:00 am walk. Yes, I know should, but I could easily talk myself out of it. Then my dogs start jumping around, excited because it’s time! How can I resist their enthusiasm? So we go, and I do feel better. Like Mickey, I have to thank my dogs for that.

Pets are not a cure for PTSD, or high blood pressure or high cholesterol. If you do not currently have a pet, I definitely don’t recommend you go out and get one to heal your PTSD. That puppy is cute, but you have enough going on in your life without adding a puddle machine to your household. Training takes time and patience.

Can You Commit?

A dog or a cat is a twenty-year commitment. If you don’t see yourself as a pet owner in 10 or 15 years, don’t become a pet owner today. But once you have made that commitment, you will be part of one the most rewarding relationships of your life.

Now go hug your four-legged friends. I just hugged mine.


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