How Pets Can Help Bipolar Disorder
Whether they're trained to help with specific issues or are just lovable family members, pets and service animals can ease bipolar symptoms and help patients feel better.
By Dennis Thompson Jr.
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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People struggling with bipolar disorder might be able to find four-legged solace from their depressed lows and manic highs through service animals and even regular pets.
Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, is often recommended for people with bipolar disorder or other mood disorders. Service animals, such as psychiatric service dogs, provide companionship and are trained to work with a specific patient to help that person deal with his disabilities, including specific bipolar symptoms.
However, you don't need a specially trained animal to get psychological benefits from having an animal nearby. Recent studies have shown that simply owning a pet can help someone who is recovering from a serious mental illness.
Bucky: A Special Service Dog
Donna Dykstra, 54, of Seattle, owns a service animal, a 10-year-old Shetland sheepdog named Bucky. Bucky has been trained to help Dykstra deal with problems related to her health and her bipolar disorder.
During severe manic mood swings, Dykstra sometimes hallucinates. Bucky helps her sort out what's real and what is not. "Seeing and hearing unusual things was really scary sometimes," Dykstra recalls. "I used to see dead people — people around me would [appear to be] dead. Then I would start seeing dead bodies lying around. [Bucky] is trained to alert to anything that is unusual around him. If there really was a dead person lying on the sidewalk, he would be responding to it." Once Dykstra is reassured by Bucky that what she is seeing isn't really there, she is able to perform stress-reduction techniques to calm herself down.
Bucky also is trained to help Dykstra deal with the social withdrawal that can result from a depressive episode. "When I am feeling particularly depressed, I want to withdraw and interact with absolutely nobody," she says. "Part of my self-care and wellness plan is taking Bucky for walks in a very busy park. I have no choice then because he will interact with other people and draw me out. Little kids come up and say, 'Can I pet the baby Lassie?'"
Bucky also helps Dykstra deal with another problem she has, a partial seizure disorder. Earthquakes sometimes happen in Seattle, but Dykstra can't always trust her senses. "I experience earthquakes that aren't really happening," she says. "Bucky alerts to earthquakes. So if I feel an earthquake, I look at him. If he's alerting, then it's really an earthquake. If he's relaxed, then it's a seizure."
Other Benefits of Pet Ownership
Having a service animal specially trained to deal with your symptoms can be a huge help. However, Fido the mutt or Zsa Zsa the rescued cat also can help soothe bipolar symptoms. Doctors have found that pets are of tremendous benefit for people recovering from serious mental illness:
- Pets provide a sense of being known and understood, with a sense of unconditional love that can restore a person's empathy.
- Pets enable bipolar patients to feel more connected with the world — they may feel a connection with the pet or, like Dykstra, find that the pet forces them to connect with other people.
- Pets create a comforting sense of family for the person with bipolar disorder.
And they can help build your sense of self-worth and confidence. You might feel more in control of your life because you are taking good care of your dog or cat. Pets also can provide a sense of purpose to a patient in particularly bad shape. "I couldn't commit suicide, back when that was an issue, because I had to take care of my dog," Dykstra says.
Video: The Basics: Pet Depression | WebMD
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