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The power of pets to support mental health and physical well-being

Personal · Jul 7, 2021

Interestingly, pet ownership in Canada has increased almost 20 per cent since the start of the pandemic, with approximately 58 per cent of Canadians having a cat, dog, fish, bird or other animal at home.

A few years ago, after a suitable period of mourning that followed the death of our beloved family dog, a Wheaton named Sunni, my kids decided they wanted a cat. Of course, they’d take care of him, so much so that their father and I wouldn’t even know he was there. 

Their father and I are now the full-time caretakers of two cats.

Edgar is jet black with the pointy ears of a bat. He’s not beautiful but he’s a lover, with a heart of gold. He follows my husband around like a dog and thrives on routine. The window in his office must be opened before 9 a.m. for bird watching, he begs for meat or cheese beside the dinner table, his eyes squinted to look passive and sweet, or on his back, pretending he’s a forlorn, starving otter.

Every night, Edgar snuggles into my husband’s side, does his nails (his own nails, not my husband’s - a pedi-pedi), and sleeps there all night. The next morning, he snuggles in for a morning cuddle and then happily begins his daily routine again.

Then there’s Angus. As my kids say, he’s the cattiest cat that ever catted. Arrogant, aloof, untouchable, divine. Angus is an orange ball of ego and attitude. He has the cleanest, fluffiest, softest fur (think orange chinchilla) and, despite the fact that he uses a litter box, he smells like a fine perfume: lightly floral, dewy, delicate.

That smell, that exquisite orange fur, that incredibly full, subtly striped, majestic tail...he draws you in. You must touch him. Hold him. But as you approach, no matter how gently, with your eyes lowered to show due respect, Angus sizes you up and quickly determines you are unworthy of his presence, much less to touch his perfect coat. So, he gives you the cold shoulder, swiftly but surely moving just out of reach, leaving you forlorn, alone, wanting.

Regardless, Edgar and Angus are both important members of my family, with personalities and pathologies, and we love them both dearly.

The power of pets

I’m fortunate enough to communicate with many TELUS team members every week, not just in business meetings but through talks, presentations and my posts. This outreach often results in lovely, warm messages of kindness and appreciation, which mean so much to me, as well as requests for guidance or expressions of frustration, mostly related to the endless, often confusing COVID restrictions.

One theme that has risen to the surface many times this week is the power of pets. There’s abundant scientific evidence that having a pet can support your mental health and increase your sense of well-being, while losing a pet is, for many, like losing a close friend or family member.

Pets can help us to build patience and to calm frayed nerves. During the past 14 months, I’ve heard from several colleagues who live alone that their pet has helped them survive the pandemic and remain psychologically well.

One teammate recently told me she was having a hard week and when I inquired she said, “You’re going to laugh at me,” and shared that her dog, who’d been part of her family for twenty years, had just died. She told me she was shocked she was taking it so hard.

I told her about my own experience of sadness when Sunni died, but also agreed that some people just don’t understand how painful the loss of a pet can be. For some of my patients, who have no one else, their pet is their greatest, closest, sometimes only friend, and I learned through them the pain the loss of a deeply loved pet can bring.

The importance of fostering emotional connections

I started this post by telling you about my cats and we’d be heartbroken if we lost either of them. The pets stories I heard this week made me even more grateful for their role in our lives.

Over the past year, the world has endured a great deal of loss, and many of us have personally experienced loss, chronic uncertainty and emotional pain. Wherever you find solace, whether from a pet, partner, or friend, doesn’t matter. What’s important is forming and maintaining supportive emotional bonds.

Out of this difficult year, I believe that good things will eventually come, as we learn and grow through this shared traumatic experience.  This is more likely to happen if we are kind to ourselves and each other.

If we show each other kindness, empathy and compassion, even if we don’t always agree on our politics, our personal views, or whether a cat or a dog makes a better pet (I vote for dogs), this will pave the path to recovery and make our work lives more productive, our home lives happier and our communities stronger.

Authored by:
Diane McIntosh
TELUS’ Chief Neuroscience Officer