Mental Health, Pets

The magic of animals in mental illness

guinea pigs

I am the proud mama of 4 guinea pigs, each one full of personality.  They mean the world to me, and sometimes they’re my reason to get through the day.  When my depression has left me feeling like I’m too tired to go out of bed, I can count on them to be very vocal about reminding me I need to get my butt up and give them their veggies.  When I have felt suicidal, they have given me a reason to carry on.

I’m a mental health nurse, and I’ll often take some of the piglets to work.  They are always a hit, and I find that the clients who are the most ill tend to be the ones who are the most drawn to my little furballs.  Sometimes I’ll feel like the most effective therapeutic intervention I provided during a shift was my animals.  They can help people who are paranoid, anxious, or depressed.  Sometimes I’m able to give an agitated client a guinea pig to hold rather than giving them extra medication, and it can be just as effective.  Clients who have been quite disconnected from the world because of their psychosis will sit for hours holding a guinea pig.  Cookie (in the bottom picture) has watery eyes, and one client believed that her tears were because she knew what he was feeling.  He expressed a sense of appreciation that finally he felt understood.

guinea pig

So how are they able to work their magic?  I think it’s something along the lines of what psychologist Carl Rogers termed “unconditional positive regard”.  We may be broken and battered by our illness, feel like a failure, and be ready to give up, but none of that matters to our animals.  They will never judge us, and they will always accept us.

Cookie the guinea pig with front paws stretched out
I truly believe that our pets can tell how we’re doing.  Of course my little ones’ brains are far too small to have any grasp of human emotions, but they always seem to know when something’s not right.  My little Cookie (in the picture to the left) is crazy in love with me.  She likes to make sustained eye contact, and it feels like she’s looking straight into my soul.  Oreo (that’s her above with the white hair on her head) likes to give kisses, especially when I need them the most.

My guinea pigs, like many pets, love routine.  They know what they want and when they want it, and get pretty thrown off by changes.  That forces me to stick to a routine even when I’m feeling really low and amotivated.  With them around I’m never really home alone, which is particularly valuable when I’m isolating due to illness.  I also find them to be a helpful focal point during mindfulness meditation, as watching and listening to them do their thing really grounds me in the moment.

There’s a lot of literature on the internet about animal-assisted therapy and emotional support animals.  While dogs may be the most recognized support animals, there are many animals (including guinea pigs!) that can engage with humans in meaningful ways.  If you are thinking of getting a pet, please consider a shelter animal – they can’t wait to shower you with love!

Update (Nov 19/17): I have just added a 5th member to my guinea pig family.  I may be well on my way to becoming the guinea pig version of the crazy cat lady, but my mood has improved, and I’m feeling less isolated.  Magic.



3 thoughts on “The magic of animals in mental illness”

  1. I thought I’d look up posts on your guinea pigs after you told me about them on my blog. 🙂 They are absolutely lovely. I gather you adopt guinea pugs from rescue centres? Guinea pigs are something I nearly once had until I had an hamster instead. For a small thing, it gave loads of love. No doubt from watching video clips of guinea pigs with their owners that guinea pigs are no different when it comes to giving the love to their owners.

    1. Yes, I adopt them from rescue shelters. When we were kids my brother had a hamster. We didn’t realize when we got her from the pet store that she was already pregnant, so it was quite the surprise when all of a sudden there were babies! The little ones were so adorable.

      1. Oh crikey. You had your hands full there didn’t you, with the hamsters.

        When I have been in Pets At Home, they have a corner for adoption, in conjunction with an animal charity, as well as selling their own. I don’t know if they still do this, as I have not been in a while, but if I was to have a guinea pig, I would probably look at adopting too.

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