We’ve all heard about the healing and stress relieving power of pets. And stories from pet owners will always be full of the how marvellous and loving their pets are. I know, because I am one of them.
But do they help with stabilising mood swings? Can they help pull you out of depression? Should you get a pet in order to help with mood swings?
For me, it started when my ex wanted dogs. My first response had been “I’ve always wanted dogs, but I didn’t think I could take care of them”. Because I knew I was bipolar and my consistency and reliability were less than ideal, and pets need you to be solidly reliable. And so my ex promised to be the reliable caretaker and we got dogs, and to be fair, my ex really did take care of the dogs magnificently, with a bit of help from me.
Well, right up to the point where my ex became, er, my ex and moved out of town, and I became the sole owner of three 120lb long haired dogs who needed to be groomed and exercised, and who each expected 100% of my undivided attention.
It’s about here that the bipolar issues and the pet world start to intersect.
I love my dogs dearly and on a typical day I spend an awful lot of time dealing with them directly – about one and a half to three hours daily. And taking care of the dogs is so intertwined with all of the other things I do, that if they are removed from my daily schedule, the structure of my day falls apart.
That was deliberately done, by the way, because I figured since I had the dogs, I could use caring for them as the forcing mechanism to get things done.
However, it turns out neither the needs of the dogs nor my love for them makes any difference when I am depressed.
When I am depressed, the only attention I give to my dogs is feeding them. And even that goes awry. Although the dogs typically get fed between 5 pm and 7 pm, during a depression episode I often put it off until 8 or 9 pm or occasionally as late as after midnight. On two evenings in the last four years, I didn’t feed them at all, although I had food and I was home with them – I just couldn’t get my act together to put out the food.
In addition, when I am depressed, my interaction with the dogs is very basic. If they come looking for attention, I will ignore them or give them a few pats and then send them away. There isn’t much in the way of giving them hugs or any other forms of love. And I definitely don’t carry the dogs for walks, or groom them, or bathe them when I am depressed.
While my dogs love me enough to tolerate all this, it turns out that the lack of attention bothers them. If my depression episodes last for too many days, the dogs will start to act out – one used to start peeing in the back porch about 5-10 days into a depression episode. And they all will develop hotspots (sores) from licking their own skin if I am depressed for long enough.
All of this consistently happens whenever I get depressed. And none of these behaviours ever happen when I am not depressed.
For me, the bottom line is this: My care of my dogs follow my depression patterns. Having and dealing with the dogs do not affect the timing, or length, or intensity of my depression cycles.
The are some silver linings as far as I am concerned. In the entire time I have had the dogs, I have only ever hit one once due to manic anger (though I’ve never hit a person in anger either). So the dogs appear protected from this potential abuse.
I’ve also been able to take care of any major problems my dogs have had even in the midst of my depression. This matters since my dogs are susceptible to maggots and I have to deal with this once or twice a year. It turns out that I may not be able to show up for work, but I am able to carry a dog to the vet.
Minor problems are a bit more problematic. If I am depressed I might ignore them until they become fairly major problems – which is usually what happens with the hotspot wounds or matted hair or minor tick issues.
Slightly more worrisome is that bipolar equals inconsistent, so monthly or annual vaccinations or protective medications may not be given on time or missed completely. So far I have been lucky that this has not created any problems.
Some people have mentioned that their dogs do act as a focus to keep them alive and moving. I am unable to add my experiences to this because I had gotten dogs about 6-7 years after my bipolar diagnosis and I had already used a different mechanism to deal with the ‘what gets me up in the morning’ and the ‘why continue living’ issues. I do think that these dogs are awfully lucky to have owners who love them so much.
So, given all this, would I recommend that a bipolar person get a pet?
My take is that there are lots of good reasons to get a pet, but I feel that it’s a bad idea to get one in the hope that they will help with the mood swings or that they will provide a structure for someone’s day because they have to be taken care of. My experience is that there is no guarantee that this will happen. And if that was the hope, what happens next?
Ask yourself what is the backup plan if the pet doesn’t help with the mood swings or if the person can’t consistently take care of pet. If there is no backup plan, someone, probably the animal, may come out of this badly. For the first 4 years of my dogs’ lives, my ex was the backup plan, which gave me enough time to learn how to develop a routine with the dogs and to experience what would happen when I got depressed. So by the time my ex and I separated, I knew how to cope.
Pets can have long lives – dogs usually live for 10-15 years. One of the things I used to worry about was that if I couldn’t even plan for 3 weeks into the future, how could I plan to take care of something that would need my support for 10 years. It turned out this is less of an issue than I thought – if they are around, they get paid attention to.
I also live with the constant guilt that I am not taking care of my dogs well enough. I feel that the hotspots are my fault. I worry that they don’t get enough exercise when I am depressed. I don’t give them the love and attention they need when I am depressed. My dogs are healthy, but I feel guilty that I could do so much more for them or with them if I didn’t have mood swings.
And on this note. I shall stop and carry doggies who are sitting hopefully by the desk for their walk.
Please leave comments about (a) if your pets help you with your mood swings, and (b) how your pets help you with mania or depression or anything else.