OCD and Pets



This post originally appeared on my blog in April 2013:

When my son Dan’s OCD was at its worst, his anxiety levels were sky-high and he could barely function. It would have been ludicrous for me to suggest he try yoga, or meditation, or any other stress reduction technique to help him feel better when, in fact, he could hardly get off the couch.

But he could pet our cats.

Our two cats at the time (Smokey and Ricky), both so lovable with distinct personalities, helped Dan immensely during those dark days. Whether they sat on his lap, just curled up on the couch next to him, or purred so loudly they sounded like engines revving, they allowed him to relax and brought him momentary peace. Other times they would engage in various cat-like antics, inciting a rare, but oh so cherished laugh from our son.

They didn’t bombard him with questions, asking if he was okay, or if he was hungry, or what was wrong. They were just there with Dan, and for a short time, his focus was diverted from his obsessions and compulsions. Smokey and Ricky were able to care for Dan in a way the rest of our family could not. An article in Time magazine called “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” explores how animals grieve. I find it fascinating, and no matter how you might interpret the various studies discussed in the article, I think it is hard to argue with the belief that animals do indeed form relationships, and are empathetic. What more does it take to comfort someone?

Certainly, there are many concrete examples of how pets can affect the lives of those with OCD. For example, if you have obsessions revolving around germs, I would think having to empty a litter box, or having your dog lick your face, would be quite an exposure.

When Dan moved into his own apartment after graduating college, one of the first things he did was foster a cat from a shelter. He has always been an animal lover, and was looking for a furry friend to keep him company. As he knows, life is full of surprises, and come to find out, his new companion, Cody, had a host of medical problems, and needed to take medication to control her seizures. Instead of returning Cody to the animal shelter (something I very well might have done) he has embraced his role as caretaker. Whether we have OCD or not, I believe this experience of putting another’s needs ahead of our own is so worthwhile; focusing outward instead of inward can give us a different perspective.

So it works both ways. We take care of our pets, and our pets take care of us. They often force us to slow down our lives, make us laugh, and give us unconditional love. And for those who are suffering, they provide the much-needed comfort and serenity that can’t be found elsewhere.


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8 Responses to OCD and Pets

  1. Nancy Palmquist says:

    Our daughter got a cat, even though she was pretty bound up by her OCD. We too were surprised by her taking care of a litter box. Later on she had issues removing the discarded litter from the apartment, but has never wavered in her love of cats and dogs. In fact, like your son has embraced animals with issues. I think her OCD has made her empathetic in this way.

    • Thanks for sharing, Nancy, and I agree with what you say about empathy, though my son (and perhaps your daughter?) has always been very sensitive and in tune to others. I hope your daughter is doing well and wish your whole family a healthy 2016!

  2. CatherineK33 says:

    Your post really intersects two topics that my husband and I have been talking about recently… He has a new theory (that I hope to blog about soon), that what really helps OCD is relationships of attunement (It’s been proven that children who experience trauma below the age of 4 have 17-20% smaller hippocampus than other people, which is the calming mechanism in the brain… BUT it’s also been proven that the hippocampus can actually grow through having long term relationships of attunement)… He believes that CBT therapy only works for a time and it’s because of the intense relational focus during that time… then the effects will fade…. The other thoughts I’ve been sharing with him are about pets and attunement…. It’s actually very rare for people to really attune to each other (many live highly dissociated lives, are too selfish, never had attunement themselves so don’t know how etc)… But pets offer a haven of attunement in this often lonely world. They will read your face and your body language, and know when you need comfort… and unlike people who tend to offer unwanted advice… they will simply give their presence… I think that often the eyes of an animal are the only safe eyes a person knows. …. It’s beautiful and deeply sad at the same time.

    • Thanks for commenting, Catherine, and I find everything you say interesting. I agree that our general lack of quality relationships and sense of community contribute to many problems, both individually and in our society. And pets, as you say, can offer us that “haven of attunement” that we might otherwise lack. I look forward to reading your post!

  3. Karen says:

    This really hits home for me. Sometimes animals can bring about more issues with OCD. I currently have a 2 year old Labrador retriever who is just a giant puppy. She makes messes everywhere, is constantly pawing up on the counters, oftentimes throws up in her bed (which means I need to clean out the kennel), among other things. She is very sweet though and I am so happy to have her. She does provide love and she doesn’t judge me because I have OCD (like people do). I can pet her, but I won’t sit on the floor with her (because I don’t want to contaminate myself on the floor) and I won’t let her jump up on the couch with me (because I don’t want her paws up on the couch after she’s been walking around in the backyard full of poop). My husband will let her do all of this stuff though. It’s like she knows its different with me, and she respects that. We had another Labrador prior to this one, who passed away a couple of years ago from cancer. It was during the time that she was going through treatment and after her death, that my OCD became a lot worse. I grieved so intensely for our first dog, I truly became more and more depressed and my OCD got worse. Our first dog saw me through some of the worst OCD moments I’ve ever had, and she was there for me in ways that even my own husband couldn’t be. She was so much more than a pet, she was a friend and a confidante, and here it is 2 years later…and I still miss her like crazy.

    • Hi Karen,
      Thank you so much for sharing and I am so sorry for the loss of your last dog. It sounds as if you had a truly special bond and relationship. I hope you are doing well now.

  4. Peytons says:

    I always find it amazing how much an animal (pet) can influence and affect a person’s life.

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